April 19, 2015


Bush's Forgotten Book : Self-government begins with citizens. (ANDREW FERGUSON, 4/27/15, Weekly Standard)

In Conservative Hurricane, his indispensable account of Bush's two terms as governor, the political scientist Matthew Corrigan referred to Bush's effort to "use government to restore character in Florida society." This isn't quite right; Bush was realistic about the relationship between government and virtue. A virtuous citizenry might be necessary for self-government, as many of the Founding Fathers said, but government could do little to produce a virtuous citizenry, as Profiles in Character insisted. "Character is not something that can be legislated," they wrote. "Any movement to reverse our cultural indicators will come only from individual effort and not government."

This of course put any conservative politician, circa 1995, in a pickle: Moved to seek office by society's deepest problems, he hoped to lead a government that he believed couldn't do much to solve society's deepest problems. He had to master what might be called the Reagan Turn--the pivot point in a campaign message when the politician, having just told voters that their decadent country is racing straight for the sewer, turns to reassure them that the brightest days of this wonderful land of freedom and opportunity lie just ahead. 

Profiles in Character is an exercise in the Reagan Turn. The book abruptly goes from a list of horribles--"If you have made it this far, you are no doubt feeling a bit depressed"--to a series of sketches of individual Floridians who have made their state a more tolerable place and can, by the power of their example, show the rest of us how to do it too. The point sounds more sentimental than it is, because the examples themselves are genuinely moving: the sixth grader who demonstrates the virtue of persistence in starting a program to feed the hungry, the Vietnam POW who stands as a model of courage to the hundreds of kids he counsels, the doctor whose compassion leads him to care for the homeless, and so on. 

What is the answer to cultural decay? "They are the answer," Bush and Yablonski wrote, "because they make us realize we are the answer."

"We would never say that government is the answer," Bush said in an interview last month. "To the contrary: Our point was that a self-governing people requires virtue and character. And if you're in government you can't ignore that. There's not a program you can develop through government to develop character. This is a societal, cultural issue."

On the other hand: "I think people in public life can talk about it, to say that it's a problem. But this moral ambivalence that exists out there is a real challenge for us. The minute you suggest there's a better path for large numbers who are struggling, you're accused of 'passing judgment.' That just freezes the conversation. But it's not 'judgmental' to suggest that a baby being brought up in poverty without a dad will have a bigger challenge growing up and the mom will have a bigger challenge economically than if they had an intact family."

Hearing a politician talk like this is either refreshing or dumbfounding, depending on your point of view. Profiles in Character itself has an antique feel. Talk of virtue and character, here in the second decade of the 21st century, sounds hopelessly retrograde--very 1995. Part of the reason is that the apocalypse was somehow averted: Many of the indicators of social decline reversed themselves, particularly rates of crime, drug use, teen pregnancy, and abortion. At the same time, the "little platoons" and mediating institutions that were supposedly indispensable to reversing the indicators--the traditional family, religion, civic associations--have themselves continued to decline. The causal chain from family and church to virtue and character to good or bad behavior was more complicated than anyone knew.

Still, Bush insists the restoration of virtue is an essential part of the argument conservatives need to make--indeed, that the conservative case for limited government can succeed only if the cultivation of virtue and character again takes its place at the center of the culture.

Posted by at April 19, 2015 8:58 AM

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