There is some sad news to report today: On Friday, David Kuo died. He was only 44 and had been battling an aggressive brain tumor.
You might remember Kuo from the George W. Bush presidency. He came to Washington in 2001 as an idealistic conservative foot soldier hoping to help the poor through the “faith-based” initiative. Two years later, he left disillusioned, convinced that the initiative was little more than a partisan political stunt.
In 2006, Kuo penned a book about his experiences titled Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. Its revelations were explosive. Kuo maintained that the initiative was cynically manipulated by White House operatives in 2002 and 2004 to help the Republican Party solidify control of Congress.
Kuo, who was the number two man in the faith-based office, was privy to many of these discussions. He detailed one meeting with James Towey, then director of the faith-based office, and Ken Mehlman, then White House political director. The three discussed ways to use the initiative to excite religious voters.
“We laid out a plan whereby we would hold ‘roundtable events’ for threatened incumbents with faith and community leaders,” Kuo wrote. “Our office would do the work, using the aura of our White House power to get a diverse group of faith and community leaders to a ‘nonpartisan’ event discussing how best to help poor people in their area. Though the Republican candidate would host the roundtable, it wouldn’t be a campaign event. The member of Congress was just taking time away from his or her campaign to serve the community. It would be the perfect event.”
There was one problem: The events were really about helping endangered GOP candidates, not the poor. White House strategists had drawn up a list of 20 House and Senate targets, among them Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, Wayne Allard in Colorado and Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas, all seeking Senate seats. House candidates included Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania, Shelley Capito in West Virginia, John Shimkus in Illinois and Anne Northup in Kentucky.
Towey subsequently appeared alongside many of the candidates at the events, and during the “conferences,” local clergy were led to believe that they could qualify for significant government grants. A special outreach was made to African-American clergy.
On Election Day, 19 of the 20 targeted candidates won.
Kuo’s book merely confirmed a pattern that Americans United had picked up on 2002. We noticed that Towey was appearing alongside a lot of GOP House candidates who were in tight races and that he seemed to be implying that if the Republican were elected, faith-based money would follow. Church & State ran an investigative story on the matter in October of 2002.
In his book, Kuo wrote that White House officials were happy to take the votes of right-wing evangelicals – even if they thought little of them.
“For most of the rest of the White House staff, evangelical leaders were people to be tolerated, not people who were truly welcomed,” Kuo wrote. “No group was more eye-rolling about Christians than the political affairs shop. They knew ‘the nuts’ were politically invaluable, but that was the extent of their usefulness.”
Continued Kuo, “National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy.’ The leaders spent much time lauding the president, but they were never shrewd enough to do what Billy Graham had done three decades before, to wonder whether they were just being used. They were.”
Kuo might have thought his book would serve as an alarm to the Religious Right and perhaps a warning that they were being used. That didn’t happen. So beholden to Bush were Religious Right leaders that they quickly aimed at Kuo and opened fire.
“I feel sorry for him, because once you do something like this, you get your 15 minutes in the spotlight, but then after that nobody will touch you,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told The Washington Post. “These kiss-and-tell books do more damage to the author than to the people they attack.”
Perkins’ boss, James Dobson, then of Focus on the Family, called Kuo’s book “a mix of sour grapes and political timing.” The late Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship said he was “shocked and disappointed by what appears to be political timing to sell a book, and a very unfair characterization of the parties involved.”
Asked about Kuo’s allegations by The Wall Street Journal, longtime Religious Right strategist Paul Weyrich, who has since died, was dismissive.
“David Kuo?” he mocked. “Who is he? The person at the White House I talk to every week is Tim Goeglein. I know he does not ridicule us.”
To answer Weyrich’s question, David Kuo was a man who wanted to do some good for the country by assisting those most in need: the poor. When he saw that the faith-based initiative wasn’t about that, he blew the whistle.
Kuo had more integrity in his little finger than the leaders of the Religious Right have in their entire bodies. His early death is tragic, and he will be missed.