The first scene is nine months before the 2002 mid-term elections.
Jim Towey [the head of the faith based office] and I we were sitting with Ken Mehlman, head of political affairs. We laid out a plan where we would hold "roundtable events" for threatened incumbents with faith and community leaders. 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 "non-partisan event" discussing how best to help poor people in their area. The White House would win not only because it was a political benefit to threatened incumbents, but also because it showed minority communities we cared. Evangelicals would be happy, too, because we would emphasize the president's deep personal faith.
Ken loved the idea and gave us our marching orders off the top of his head. There were 20 targets.
"This is good, very good, very, very good," Mehlman said. "But we want to be careful too. We can't be requesting the events, we'll have to have the candidates request them. And it can't come from the campaigns. That would make it look too political. It needs to come from the congressional offices. We'll take care of that by having our guys call the office to request the visit."
I hoped the more politically useful we were, the more we would matter inside the West Wing, and the more we mattered the more we could accomplish. We planned to continue to make our policy case and lay out arguments to our White House colleagues for why the president needed to fulfill his promises. But if the policy people remained hostile to us, and the legislative liaisons weren't helpful, I hoped we could now earn the ultimate trump card by the election—that the political folks would be our principal advocates. I was well educated in Washington's ways—politics equaled power and we needed power.
[During a similar event the next year in Atlanta] Ralph Reed surveyed the enormous ballroom with wide eyes. He looked back at me. "Do you realize what you've done here? Do you realize what this is? This is what Republicans have been trying to do for the last 20 years. For the last 20 years we've tried to find a way to get this kind of an audience into a room. "
Ralph knew why I invited him. He pulled out his cell phone, dialed a number and exclaimed, "Karl, I'm down here in Atlanta at the faith-based conference. You've won't believe what we've got here. You've got 3,000 people, mostly minorities, applauding a stinkin' video of the president. This is unbelievable. THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE!!"
More than a dozen conferences with more than 20,000 faith and community leaders were held in 2003 and 2004 in every significant battleground state, including two in Florida, one in Miami ten days before the 2004 election. Their political power was incalculable. They were completely off the media's radar screen.
While the conferences were being birthed, we were also figuring out what to do with the Compassion Capital Fund. Promised originally at $200 million per year then cut in early 2001 to $100 million, and then again to $30 million, it was only faith-based money we had to distribute [even though $8 billion of new money had originally been promised].
Many of the grant-winning organizations that rose to the top of this process were politically friendly to the administration. Bishop Harold Ray of Redemptive Life Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach had been one of the most vocal black voices supporting the president during the 2000 election. His newly-created National Center for Faith-Based Initiatives somehow scored a 98 out of a possible 100. Pat Robertson's overseas aid organization, Operation Blessing, scored a 95.67. Nueva Esperanza, an umbrella of other Hispanic ministries, headed by President Bush's leading Hispanic ally, Luis Cortez, received a 95.33. The Institute for Youth Development, that works to send positive messages to youth, earned a 94.67. The Institute's head was a former Robertson staffer. Even more bizarre, a new organization called "We Care America" received a 99.67 on its grant review. It was the second highest score. They called themselves a "network of networks" an "organizer of organizations". They had a staff of three, all from the world of Washington politics, and all very Republican. They were on tap to receive more than $2.5 million.
All this information trickled in to our office when we requested updates on the Compassion Capital Fund. It took a while, but we finally got the list of recommended grantees. It was obvious that the ratings were a farce.
[A few years later,] my wife Kim and I were together with a group of friends and acquaintances. Someone mentioned that I used to work at the White House in the faith-based office. A woman piped up and said, "Really? Wow, I was on the peer-review panel for the first Compassion Capital Fund." I asked her about how she liked it and she said it was fun. She talked about how the government employees gave them grant review instructions – look at everything objectively against a discreet list of requirements and score accordingly. "But," she said with a giggle, "when I saw one of those non-Christian groups in the set I was reviewing, I just stopped looking at them and gave them a zero."
At first I laughed. A funny joke. Not so much. She was proud and giggling and didn't get that there was a problem with that. I asked if she knew of others who'd done the same. "Oh sure, a lot of us did." She must have seen my surprise, "Was there a problem with that?"
These were the new problems for Christians in politics. We weren't on the outside looking in anymore. We were running programs, agencies, the country.
By 2003, Kuo had started to see that some White House political advisers privately mocked the religious conservatives that they courted.
[The practice was] to make grand announcements and then do nothing to implement them. Nowhere was this clearer than in compassion announcements. In May 2001, for instance, the president announced a new $3 billion drug treatment initiative. By December 2003 not a dime had been spent. I had been around politics long enough not to be shocked. The announcements were smart politics because absolutely no one called them on anything. . George W. Bush loves Jesus. He is a good man. But he is a politician; a very smart and shrewd politician. And if the faith-based initiative was teaching me anything, it was about the presidents' capacity to care about perception more than reality. He wanted it to look good. He cared less about it being good.
Christian leaders, Christian media, and Christian writers, however, didn't dare question or challenge him or the White House. He wasn't a political leader to them, he was a brother in Christ – precisely what the White House wanted them to believe. What they didn't get to see was what the White House thought 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. 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. Sadly, the political affairs folks complained most often and most loudly about how boorish many politically involved Christians were. They didn't see much of the love of Jesus in their lives.
Political Affairs was hardly alone. There wasn't a week that went by that I didn't hear someone in middle- to senior-levels making some comment or another about how annoying the Christians were or how tiresome they were, or how "handling" them took so much time.
Although Kuo was growing disillusioned, it was a personal crisis in April 2003 that brought the situation into sharp relief.
[Kim and I drove] down one of the prettiest stretches of road in Washington, DC: Rock Creek Parkway.
Slowly, and without my permission, my left foot started sliding toward me. I tried to push my foot back to its proper place. I couldn't. I concentrated and tried harder to push it away. An electric jolt stiffened my whole left side. My right foot slammed down on the accelerator.
I want to say that I don't remember anything else but unfortunately I do. They are the fragments of a nightmare. I see the car heading very, very fast at a wall. Then I see us in an oncoming lane of traffic. I hear Kim screaming. My head won't turn. I fade to black, with absolutely no white light at the end of the tunnel. I ended up in the George Washington University Hospital emergency room and learned that I had had a grand mal seizure. My wife was ok. It was about 12:30am on Palm Sunday morning.
I was quickly wheeled in for a CT Scan. The technician came back and said he needed to run a few more tests. He wouldn't look me in the eyes. I asked what it was. He just looked grim and told me to be quiet. Involuntarily I started saying, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…" over and over and over again. My head was rocking back and forth.
Then slowly, I felt something. I sensed God. I just knew. I didn't see any bushes that burned or fire coming down from heaven, there was just real peace amidst the real horror. It felt like a big, heavy down comforter was pulled up over me from head to toe. I felt inexplicably safe. A voice I could almost hear with my ears said to me, "You will be ok. You will be ok. This is a battle, but you will be ok."
The doctors disagreed. I had a brain tumor. I had months or weeks.
On April 23, ten days after Palm Sunday, I had nine hours of surgery to remove an egg-sized tumor from my head. The prognosis improved. Pathology reports revealed that the tumor was "low-grade" and unlikely to kill me right away. It would, the doctors agreed, probably return at some unknown point and potentially with greater ferocity. That could be decades away. It could be months. I would have to live by faith.
One day in December I turned in my badge and on my way out did the usual and customary thing and delivered my resignation letter to Andy Card. He accepted it, shook my hand, thanked me for all I'd done, wished me well on my future and health, and asked me if I had any thoughts on how the White House could improve. I had been through too much not to say something. I told him everything I thought. The president had made great promises but they hadn't been delivered on. Worse than that, the White House hadn't tried. Worse than that, we had used people of faith to further our political agenda and hadn't given them anything in return. I went on and on for a few minutes. He sat there a bit bug eyed. "Formality meetings" are supposed to be just that.
"And finally sir, this thought. I don't know if you are aware of this but your staff frequently refers to the faith-based initiative as the 'f-ing faith based initiative.' That doesn't help."
He shook my hand, assured me that he would look into it and that the president was committed to the initiative. I was being spun. I was already an outsider. Kim awaited me in the West Wing lobby. I took her hand, left the building, looked back at the beautiful place where I had been blessed to work, gave her a kiss, and walked through the gates and back into life.