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May 28, 2022

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A lack of compassion

The softer side of conservatism President Bush once sold has all but disappeared

In his State of the Union address in 2002, a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush urged the creation of “a new culture of responsibility.” He asked Americans to volunteer and make public service a priority.

To rally Americans to service, Bush created the USA Freedom Corps to push the initiative and to oversee the expansion of the Peace Corps and its domestic counterpart, AmeriCorps.

The Freedom Corps initially boomed under its first leader, John Bridgeland, whose passion for public service and close ties to the president are credited with giving the Freedom Corps a fast start. Bridgeland told The New York Times that Bush had asked him to “design a big initiative,” and he did.

The number of people joining the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps increased. In addition, Bridgeland set up Citizens Corps, a network of medical workers and first responders who pledged to volunteer to help in emergencies.

At the time, Bridgeland was at the center of the president’s domestic agenda, the hallmark of his “compassionate conservatism.” The momentum, however, soon waned as the White House went on its crusade in Iraq and let domestic policy, and any sense of compassion, wither on the vine.

Bridgeland saw the writing on the wall. The war in Iraq consumed the president’s agenda, so he left. Other aides followed, feeling let down by the White House’s failure to follow through on this vision.

Former Bush aide Les Lenkowsky, who worked on the “compassion agenda,” said it started strong after the president made it “quite clear that he didn’t want this just to be a bully pulpit.”

“He really wanted policy initiatives,” Lenkowsky said. “We took him at his word and went to work on them. And now I think it is mostly, entirely bully pulpit.”

That is a sad, but fitting, summary of this administration. A pledge to America was nothing more than hot air.

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