On August 11, 2000, the editors of Catholic Digest conducted an exclusive interview with Gov. George W. Bush while he enjoyed a five- to 10-point lead in the polls in the week following the Republican convention. The governor phoned Catholic Digest's St. Paul, Minnesota, headquarters from Portland, Oregon. The conversation was relaxed and congenial, and it lasted for approximately 40 minutes.

Catholic Digest: You've spoken of your conversion in the mid-'80s, when you became a born-again Christian, as a profound change of heart. How has that changed your politics?

Bush: First, it changed my outlook on life. Secondly, I take great comfort and peace knowing there is an Almighty God. It helps me understand that there is a higher priority in life, ultimately, than the priorities I may have set before me.

Why should Catholics--in particular--vote for you?

First and foremost, I'm going to bring responsibility to the office. Secondly, I've got a positive vision, a vision that says we want the American dream to touch every willing heart.

My platform addresses the major needs of the country. I want to reform entitlements. I want the Social Security and Medicare systems to work, and I want to make sure that our education system fulfills its promise. I've got a vision that says we are going to keep the peace by strengthening the military, by using our dollars wisely to meet the needs of the 21st century. I've got a tax policy that will not only help prosperity but will make the code more fair.

Catholics should appreciate my understanding of the Church's social doctrine that the poor need to be helped so they can help themselves. And I appreciate and will promote the value of life--whether it be the life of the unborn or the life of the elderly.

What is the most difficult thing you've ever had to do?

Deciding to run for president was a difficult decision because I had never dreamt of being president. If you had asked my college friends, "Do you think George Bush is planning to run for president?" they would have said, "Absolutely not." And they would have been right. What really made it difficult was understanding the difficulties that my daughters will have with their dad running for president.

Also, watching a good man whom I loved dearly go down in defeat in 1992 was painful. It's hard to put this in proper words, but I love my dad more than anything. He has been a fabulous father. He gave me the great gift of unconditional love. On the other hand, I do have a mother who's quite realistic. So the next morning, we're sitting around moping. She said, "Hey, it's over. Get over it. Go on with your lives."

Good advice. What advice would you give to a young person tempted to take drugs?

Drugs become a replacement for faith, for confidence. Drugs are an incredibly negative influence on your life in that they are a masquerade for a longing that they will never answer. Drugs will destroy you. Same with alcohol.

Many of our leaders say our national economy is doing exceptionally well, with record profits, plenty of jobs, lots of consumer spending. However, many working families are not quite getting by. How do you intend to address this apparent gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots"?

I recognize there is a gap. I think the great challenge, frankly, is understanding that there are a lot of folks who struggle and who are saying, "This American experience really is not meant for me." And there are a lot of things we can do as a society. Educating children is absolutely essential to make sure the gap does not widen.

Let me talk about education. I believe in local control of schools. I believe in enhancing educational entrepreneurship, [but I also] believe in measuring and holding people accountable. If a school district receives [federal] money for Title I students, they've got to show us whether or not those students are meeting standards. If they can't, the money [should] go to the parent so the parent can make a different choice. That money can be used anywhere--in parochial schools, tutoring programs, charter schools--I don't care. What I do care about is subsidizing failure. I want a focus not on innovative curricula but on tried-and-true curricula.

I believe in education savings accounts that allow parents to withdraw money on a tax-free basis to send their child to any school, anywhere.

I think tax policy needs to be changed. There is a penalty for people struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder. If you make $22,000, and you're a single mom with a couple of kids, for every additional dollar you earn, you pay a higher marginal rate than someone making $200,000. And I know that's hard for Americans to believe, but it's true: As you lose your earned-income tax credit, and as you go into the 15% bracket, and as you pay payroll taxes, your effective rate's about 50%. My tax plan says we're going to drop the bottom rate from 15 to 10 [%] and increase the child credit, which literally moves 6 million families off the tax rolls. [Tax] policy has got to say to people, "The harder you work, the more money you keep, and the easier it is for you to save."

Housing is a big issue. In Philly, where we had our convention, there are these beautiful row homes that are empty and dilapidated. We need to restructure our housing tax-credit program, which encourages renovation for rental purposes. We ought to do it for home-ownership purposes: Take the Section 8 housing voucher, which is now used for renting, and let those folks use the money for down payments and mortgage payments.

It's a lot of words, but that's an example. In another area, we need to have a tax credit for the working uninsured so they can purchase insurance. [That should be] coupled with a program that will enable small businesses to pool their employees across state lines to drive their insurance costs to affordable levels. The American Restaurant Association, for example, should be allowed to bid for insurance policies for members in Texas, New York, and California--wherever they may be. By pooling interests, the cost will be driven down, making it easier for small restaurateurs to afford insurance for the working uninsured, like waitresses.

How would we pay for these tax credits and incentives?

Let me give you the numbers: A $4.6 trillion surplus over a 10-year period. And by the way, that surplus is continuing to grow, about $2.3 million of which is reserved for Social Security. My plan says $1.3 trillion will be for tax credits, leaving a trillion over a 10-year period for additional spending on government.

Pope John Paul II and many leaders of all denominations around the world have called for debt forgiveness on the part of rich nations toward poorer ones. What's your personal opinion on this?

I like the idea and support it so long as the policy is reviewed on a country-by-country basis, so long as we help those who need it most, and so long as the policy does not support corrupt governments.

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