Because the pre-school period in this house is the province of Clifford the Big Red Dog, I haven't yet heard any commentary on the President's State of the Union address last night. Perhaps that's best; perhaps I ought to rely first on my own impressions, though I admit I'm often, initially at least, swayed by powerful rhetoric.
So. This morning President Bush will speak at the National Prayer Breakfast, a circumstance that plays right into my bloggin' hands. Because I want to talk about motives. Bush - I'm far from the first to say it - confounds the Democratic leadership. He's not only Christian, as most Americans describe themselves, but is Christian openly, emphatically, without regard to the effect of his belief on others (that is, whether he will offend the sensibilities of those who don't share his faith). Many Americans don't know what to make of that old time religion. I didn't myself, for a long time; I was born a Yankee and raised primarily in the North and on the West Coast, a Roman Catholic, and in that tradition during my growing-up years if you cared for the poor and disadvantaged you were a liberal. Fundamentalist Christianity was a subject for deep suspicion. Televangelists were hypocrites motivated not by God but by greed - and what came to light about them in the media certainly bore out that impression.
But then I moved South, as an adult, and lived in Texas for five years. One of my two bosses, a woman about my own age, was a fundamentalist Christian, the first I had ever had occasion to deal with daily. In my first few weeks of work, I secretly remained sure that her Christian belief was all a pose, cynical and studied, for the purpose of insinuating herself into the lives of other Texans from whom she could profit one way or another. But slowly I began to realize (gasp!) that she was sincere. She gave out candy and "tracts" - little slips of paper with joyful Bible verses - at Halloween, because she didn't want to disappoint the children who came to her door, but at the same time she couldn't let slide the fact that in her mind they were celebrating something horrible. Her friend and co-founder of the company for which I was working was a Jewish man, and while the two of them had lots of fun together and worked together in great harmony, she never implied to him or to anyone else that she didn't actively pray for his conversion, while accepting him just as he was. She had been a successful banker, on track to make great money, when the two of them quit to start their business; she hoped as fervently as anyone in the company that we would succeed and make great money in this venture too, but never, not once, at the cost of dealing unethically with a client or cooking our books.
She was sincere. Because of her, I had to reexamine my beliefs about "that kind" of Christian. Her low-level motives, like mine, were (not necessarily in order!) to make good money, be successful, have friends, have a nice house, be happy with her husband. But her high-level motive was to serve God in whatever way God chose, and she meant it, and she did it. When the company went under, she expressed her pain and disappointment, but also her conviction that God was acting in this circumstance just as God had in the circumstances that led to her starting the company in the first place.
When she attended the National Prayer Breakfast, as she did while I was working for her, she did it not to curry favor with powerful people nor to get the President's autograph; she did it because she felt lucky to have reason to be in Washington at the time and wanted to share that morning with like-minded fellows. If she ended up meeting the President and getting to know powerful people, well, bully for her, and it must have been God's will. If the company had been a huge success instead of fizzling out, she would have been just as convinced that God's purpose for her included starting and running the company, and she would have made business decisions based on her conviction, including treating her employees well but not allowing them to be undisciplined, charging her clients a fair price that allowed for a profit but not an obscene one, and going public when it was clear that an IPO would serve the shareholders best, not just when she felt it was time to cut and run.
I think Bush is just about the same. He isn't a fool and he isn't a solitary monk; he's a businessman and a politician who nevertheless believes sincerely that he is where he is for God's purposes, not his own. He is not soft-headed nor soft-hearted - he's honestly a Republican and honestly a conservative - but when he says he's a "compassionate conservative," he's telling the absolute truth as he sees it. His idea of compassion is much different from the standard-issue Democrat one, but compassion it is: to end "social promotion" in schools because kids' ability to function in the working world is more important than sparing their tender feelings about being the oldest in the class; to privatize part of Social Security because free will is a cornerstone of self-esteem, and there's no free will involved in the Social Security annuity; to end affirmative action because it's no kindness to give anyone the impression, true or not, that he or she succeeds because of skin color or gender rather than ability and merit. Bush's compassion is "tough love" in some cases. Any parent knows that requiring your son to finish his homework, requiring your daughter to go to school dressed appropriately rather than stylishly, seems cruel to the child and can break your own heart, but is nevertheless an expression of love.
The (Democrat) House and Senate minority leaders responded to the State of the Union address by demonstrably clutching to their bosoms each one of the "lessons" of the last election as taught them by liberal commentators. They were sure to mention God. They tried to rescript some of their issues as "moral values." They tried hard to be "Red Staters" - Harry Reid especially, with his pointless story about the little boy who approached him in Searchlight, NV, admiringly wanting to be just like him someday: the story was a painfully obvious attempt to convince listeners that Harry hangs out in Searchlight whenever he's not in Washington, eating meat & three at the one restaurant in town, chawin' and spittin' and talking about horses and NASCAR and making an impression on the little boys skateboarding along the tumbleweed-tumbled streets. But here is the difference: when your teacher tells you to do a book report of at least five sentences (as my son was assigned this week, his first book report ever) and you read the book and come up with four sentences plus "I liked this book very much," you have not internalized the lesson. You're fulfilling the letter of the lesson but you don't understand its purpose.
On the other hand, when you read a book for an at-least-five-sentence book report and write a whole page, summarizing the plot, voicing your admiration for one character or another, telling how you could hardly wait to turn the pages or you wished you could jump into the story and beat the crap out of the bad guy, you have internalized the lesson of the book report: to read, to love reading, to comment on what you have read, to persuade others to read. You may also be really annoying, but you are at least sincere and you do at least understand what the purpose of the assignment was. When the President talks about God, it's because he believes talking about God is necessary and intrinsic to his discussion. When he discusses morals, it's because of his personal convictions. When he goes through an entire campaign year saying that he not only will not pull back or out from Iraq but plans to step up the war on terror, it's because he believes it is the right course of action - not because he believes it will get him reelected, though it did.
The Democrats lost because they believe it's all about message; but it isn't. It's all about doing what is right and necessary, and doing it because it's right and necessary, not because it's popular.