Acton Institute Powerblog

My $50,000-per-Person Poverty Dinner

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An 8-part series on what the author of The Tragedy of American Compassion saw from his ringside seat at the welfare reform and compassionate conservatism fights.

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“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

Those are the opening lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I can start the same way this series on my seven adventurous years—November 8, 1994, to September 11, 2001—in the politics of poverty-fighting. You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Tragedy of American Compassion, but that ain’t no matter. It was publicized by Mr. Newt Gingrich and Ms. Arianna Huffington, and they told the truth, some of the time.

I’ve written 29 books. Only one saw huge sales. In January 1995 it gained praise from the first Republican in 40 years to become Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. In talk after talk, interview after interview, week after week throughout 1995, he said things like, “If you haven’t read Marvin Olasky’s book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, get it by next week, read it. … Bill Bennett told me it was the most powerful book he had read in a decade, and I finally picked it up over Christmas, and I called him and I said, ‘I am just overwhelmed by how powerful it is.’”

I report that not as a brag but as an indication of how politics was almost as strange and complicated in the 1990s as it currently is. Newt has gone down in history as the man who inaugurated the now-rampant politics of personal destruction, but for some reason he loved this book about the pursuit of personal charity. Arianna Huffington spent a third of a century bouncing from society pages to New Age murmuring, but she had a brief conservative incarnation.

And then there was me during my seven years of mild notoriety, rafting down a flood-swollen political Mississippi, not knowing which fork to eat with and which to use as an oar. Like Huck Finn, I was an outlier who saw through a glass weirdly and tried to tell the truth. And the truth in The Tragedy of American Compassion was that we’ve forgotten how our predecessors successfully fought poverty by coming alongside the poor—viewing “compassion” literally as suffering with them and helping them do better.

“Hard times,” a country song written by Stephen Foster in 1854, had it right: “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,/ While we all sup sorrow with the poor;/ There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;/ Oh! Hard times come again no more.” The tragedy is that many who are well-off now treat the poor as pets: They put some food in their bowls and pat them occasionally as long as they don’t chew the cushions.

Let’s flip the calendar to November 8, 1994. For four decades the Republican role in Congress had been diving for discounts: Democrats proposed a spending measure, Grand Old Payers reduced the cost by 10% and voted yes. Suddenly, Newt Gingrich ratcheted up politics through a 10-pledge “Contract with America.” He spoke of radically changing welfare: “I don’t know the details of the replacement, but I know if you’re thinking about repairing it, reforming it, propping it up, paying for it, you don’t get it yet. We have to replace it.”

If Republicans followed through on that task and nine others, Newt said, “You’ll see an explosion of hope. The people will become hopeful again. They’ll think: Wow, what if America can work? What if we have a good future? What if we could be physically safe? What if our schools actually taught people? … What if my life could have purpose and I could pursue happiness?”

Sure. What if we could live on the big rock-candy mountain? But following the November swing of 54 seats in the House of Representatives, Newt gained election as Speaker of the House. Major networks televised his inaugural address on January 4, 1995. The TV in my Austin living room provided background noise as I wrote syllabi for the spring term University of Texas courses I planned to teach.

Suddenly, these Newt words grabbed my attention: “I commend to all of you Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion. Olasky goes back for 300 years and looks at what has worked in America: how we have helped people rise beyond poverty, how we have reached out to save people.” What? Who, me? (I learned later that a Newt staffer was supposed to call me in advance … but forgot.)

I wasn’t used to such publicity. My phone kept ringing with requests for interviews and speeches. A typical network news segment, here introduced by Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News: “Who is this mystery man?” A typical newspaper lede: “Marvin Olasky, a born-again professor from Texas and self-described mumbler, has become the Thomas Paine of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican ‘revolution.’”

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said that my central message “hit the conservative movement like a thunderbolt.” It hit me like a massage. To quote a Wall Street Journal headline, I was “the Darling of Conservative Elite.” Yipes. I was as uneasy in that role as a Huck Finn or the mastiff in Turner & Hooch. I, an essentially shy guy who had grown up in a lower-middle-class home where dinner conversations and visitors were rare, was suddenly in a rich world where talk is king.

I took a leave of absence from UT and began commuting to D.C. Arianna kept introducing me with this line: “I have an intellectual crush on him.” She hosted “brown bag lunches” (beef stroganoff and baby carrots served on blue-rimmed Limoges china) and dinners with senators, elite journalists, and tycoons. My task was to talk about replacing the welfare state. The attention puffed me up, as when I was a small child and recited the alphabet backward to the amusement of aunts and uncles. But I also remembered George Herbert’s 1633 poem about “a nine days wonder. … And after death the fumes that spring/ From private bodies make as big a thunder/ As those which rise for a huge King.”

Jump to the evening of February 7, 1995. Arianna, then 44, basked in Washington TV spotlights outside the Hay-Adams Hotel next to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which Donald Trump would liberate 25 years later. Her soon-to-be-dropped husband, Michael, was to her right. I was also 44 and standing to her left. “Well, guru,” she murmured to me, “you say ‘compassion’ is a word owned by the Democrats. Tonight we take it back.”

The Huffingtons were hosting a $50,000-per-plate dinner to benefit a conservative-news foray, the National Empowerment Network, which failed when Fox News launched the next year and gained dominance. Newt slipped into the Hay-Adams through a back door to avoid a dozen protesters in piggy masks. I was a nonpaying invitee “to help guide the dinner table conversation.”

Arianna played with reporters who asked her to respond to the protesters’ chant: “Two, four, six, eight—$50,000 a plate!” She told one, “Sometimes you have to spend money to bring attention to the plight of the poor.” Washington Post gossip columnist Lloyd Grove asked Arianna about her outfit, which he identified as a beige brocade Valentino pantsuit from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. “I love those clothes, but I wait until they’re fifty percent off,” she replied.

We walked into the private room for the 16-person dinner, which the menu told me was foie gras and shrimp appetizers, salmon, and rack of lamb. I thought it excellent, but Michael Huffington, who had just spent nearly $30 million of his fortune in a failed attempt to unseat California Sen. Diane Feinstein, later told reporters, “It was no better and no worse than any other dinner.”

Newsweek’s Jon Meacham reported on the event with some exaggeration: Dessert was “a hockey-puck-size cappuccino torte in Grand Marnier sauce.” Nah: The torte was no bigger than 50 credit cards piled one atop the other. One $50,000-payer said the welfare state cost too much. I countered that conservatives for decades had been upside down in their critique of welfare. The real problem with the welfare state was not that it wasted money. The real problem was its stinginess with what people in trouble need most: challenging personal and spiritual help.

What about liberal politicians? Newt asked. Aren’t they the ones wasting money? Sure, I said: They equated compassion for the poor with government poverty-fighting expenditures. They said Vote against my spending bill and you’re hard-hearted. They stuck with that even though entitlement programs, by discouraging individual effort, often did more harm than good. But conservatives hadn’t done much good by going they they they all the time and implying that welfare programs were fine except for the expense.

In short, welfare programs were not bankrupting this affluent country. The bigger cost was multigenerational welfare dependency. The welfare state gave the needy bread and told them to be content with that alone. We needed compassion rightly understood, not as a call to fling coins like a Lady Bountiful, but as suffering with those in need. More about that next time.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky, an Acton affiliate scholar, is the author of Abortion Rites and coauthor of the forthcoming The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652-2022.