Dear Mr. President,
When I first heard that you were vowing to veto a bipartisan bill to expand child health care, my immediate thought was more personal than political: What has happened to you?
I vividly remember a call at the office, only one day after your election had been secured. It was an invitation to come to Austin to meet you and to discuss with a small group of religious leaders your vision for “faith-based initiatives” and your passion for doing something on poverty. I had not voted for you (which was no secret or surprise to your staff or to you), but you were reaching out to many of us in the faith community across the political spectrum who cared about poverty. I was impressed by that, and by the topic of the Austin meeting.
We all filed into a little Sunday school classroom at First Baptist, Austin. I had actually preached there before, and the pastor told me how puzzled he was that his “progressive” church was chosen for this meeting. You were reaching out. About 25 of us were sitting together chatting, not knowing what to expect, when you simply walked in without any great introduction. You sat down and told us you just wanted to listen to our concerns and ideas of how to really deal with poverty in America.
And you did listen, more than presidents often do. You asked us questions. One was, “How do I speak to the soul of America?” I remember answering that one by saying to focus on the children. Their plight is our shame and their promise is our future. Reach them and you reach our soul. You nodded in agreement. The conversation was rich and deep for an hour and a half.
Then when we officially broke, you moved around the room and talked with us one-on-one or in small groups for another hour. I could see your staff was anxious to whisk you away (you were in the middle of making cabinet appointments that week and there were key departments yet to fill). Yet you lingered and kept asking questions. I remember you asking me, Jim, I don’t understand poor people. I’ve never lived with poor people or been around poor people much. I don’t understand what they think and feel about a lot of things. I’m just a white Republican guy who doesn’t get it. How do I get it? I still recall the intense and sincere look on your face as you looked me right in the eyes and asked your heartfelt question. It was a moment of humility and candor that, frankly, we don’t often see with presidents.
I responded by saying that you had to listen to poor people themselves and pay attention to those who do live and work with the poor. It was a simple answer, but again you were nodding your head. I told my wife, Joy, also a clergyperson, about our conversation. Weeks later, we listened to your first inaugural address. When you said,
America, at its best, is compassionate. In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault … many in our country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who do,
my wife poked me in the ribs and smiled. In fact, you talked more about poverty than any president had for a long time in his inaugural addresses—and I said so in a newspaper column afterward (much to the chagrin of Democratic friends). They also didn’t like the fact that I started going to other meetings at the White House with you or your staff about how to best do a “faith-based initiative,” or that some of my personal friends were appointed to lead and staff your new Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives at the White House. We brought many delegations of religious leaders, again from across the political spectrum, to meet with representatives of that office. Some of us hoped that something new might be in the air.
But that was a long time ago. We don’t hear much about that office or initiative anymore. Most of my friends have long left. I don’t hear about meetings now. And nobody speaks anymore about this new concept you named “compassionate conservatism.” And now, you promise to veto a strongly bipartisan measure to expand health insurance for low-income children. Most of your expressed objections to the bill have been vigorously refuted by Republican senators who helped craft the bill and support it passionately. They vow to try and override your veto. During your first campaign, you chided conservative House Republicans for tax and spending cuts accomplished on the backs of the poor. Now Congressional Republicans are chiding you.
What happened to you, Mr. President? The money needed for expanding health care to poor children in America is far less than the money that has been lost and wasted on corruption in Iraq. How have your priorities stayed so far from those children, whom you once agreed were so central to the soul of the nation? What do they need to do to get your attention again? You will be literally barraged by the religious community across the political spectrum this week, imploring you not to veto children’s health care. I would just ask you to take your mind back to a little meeting in a Baptist Sunday school classroom, not far away from where you grew up. Remember that day, what we all talked about, what was on your heart, and how much hope there was in the room. Mr. President, recall that day, take a breath, and say a prayer before you decide to turn away from the children who are so important to our nation’s soul and to yours.
God bless you,