Book: Bush Aides Called Evangelicals 'Nuts'

White House advisors sought the support of conservative Christians but mocked them in private, writes a onetime administration official.

By Peter Wallsten

Los Angeles Times

October 13, 2006

WASHINGTON — A new book by a former White House official says that President Bush's top political advisors privately ridiculed evangelical supporters as "nuts" and "goofy" while embracing them in public and using their votes to help win elections.

The former official also writes that the White House office of faith-based initiatives, which Bush promoted as a nonpolitical effort to support religious social-service organizations, was told to host pre-election events designed to mobilize religious voters who would most likely favor Republican candidates.

The assertions by David Kuo, a top official in the faith-based initiatives program, have rattled Republican strategists already struggling to persuade evangelical voters to turn out this fall for the GOP.

Some conservatives lamented Thursday that the book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," also comes in the midst of the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, another threat to conservative turnout in competitive House and Senate races.

The book is scheduled to be in stores Monday, but the White House responded to its assertions Thursday.

In the book, Kuo, who quit the White House in 2003, accuses Karl Rove's political staff of cynically hijacking the faith-based initiatives idea for electoral gain. It assails Bush for failing to live up to his promises of boosting the role of religious organizations in delivering social services.

White House strategists "knew 'the nuts' were politically invaluable, but that was the extent of their usefulness," Kuo writes, according to the cable channel MSNBC, which obtained an advance copy.

"Sadly, the political affairs folks complained most often and most loudly about how boorish many politically involved Christians were…. National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as 'ridiculous' and 'out of control.' ''

It is unclear whether Kuo identifies any specific official as having used the dismissive language.

The book says that before the 2002 elections, then-White House political director Ken Mehlman issued "marching orders" to use the faith-based initiative in 20 House and Senate races, according to MSNBC. To avoid appearing overtly political, Mehlman said his staff would arrange for congressional offices to request visits from the faith-based program officials.

Throughout the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, faith-based officials would meet with lawmakers in some places in an effort to generate publicity for them, while also hosting conferences in battleground states attracting hundreds of pastors and community activists eager to learn how to apply for federal grants.

A spokeswoman for Mehlman, who is now chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he did not recall the directives mentioned by Kuo. As political director, she said, "it was Mehlman's job to both engage outside groups and inform decision makers in the White House about support for the president's agenda."

Kuo is scheduled to appear Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" as part of a rollout arranged by his publisher, Simon & Schuster, which shares a corporate parent with CBS.

Despite a publisher-enforced embargo, a copy of the book was purchased early at a Manhattan bookstore by a producer for MSNBC's "Countdown," a spokesman for the cable channel said. Program host Keith Olbermann began reading excerpts on his Wednesday show.

Kuo's descriptions could do political damage to a Republican Party that has staked its formula for success on motivating the conservative base.

"Here we go again," said Paul M. Weyrich, a leading religious conservative with close ties to the White House, referring to the avalanche of negative factors that he predicted would keep "embarrassed Republicans" from voting, just as the Watergate scandal did in the 1970s. "If Republicans win, it will prove God is a Republican, since it will take a miracle."

Weyrich said Kuo, while still a White House official, told him of frustrations that the faith-based program had become entangled in politics. The initiative had been a signature proposal by Bush in the 2000 campaign but lost momentum amid partisan battles on Capitol Hill and the intense focus on security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Weyrich said that Bush and many of his aides were genuinely interested in the program. But, he added, "I don't have any illusions about Rove. I think that he advocates conservatism because he believes it's the way to win."

The White House denied Kuo's account with help Thursday from two former officials popular among evangelicals — former speechwriter Michael Gerson and former faith-based initiative director Jim Towey.

Gerson called Kuo's account "laughable," while Towey cited a December 2002 e-mail from Kuo expressing positive feelings about the program's progress in promoting "compassionate conservatism."

"He doesn't seem to have been working at the same White House where I worked," Towey said. "I had marching orders from the president to keep the faith-based initiative nonpolitical, and I did."

Still, neither Gerson nor Towey denied Kuo's assertion that politics did factor into the initiative.

"Ken Mehlman was doing his job, which was to worry about races," said Towey, who is currently president of St. Vincent College, a Catholic school in Pennsylvania.

Towey's travel took him to a number of battleground states in 2002, but he said that he also visited places such as Boston that were not important to the GOP's electoral goals.

And in addition to meetings with Republicans, he said he appeared in public with Democrats such as former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakots, who was running for reelection, and Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, who is running this year for the Senate.

Kuo is not the first insider to accuse the White House of politicizing the faith-based program. John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, resigned after seven months and was quoted as saying that the White House was run by "Mayberry Machiavellians" who sometimes put politics ahead of other causes.

While many Democrats opposed the initiative as a violation of church-state separation, the White House used the program to build alliances with prominent African American ministers, some of whom switched political allegiances to back Bush. It was part of a larger minority outreach program designed by Rove and other conservative activists to slice off pieces of the traditional Democratic coalitions in order to build a lasting GOP majority.