Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction by David Kuo








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In many respects, David Kuo grew up in the West Wing of the White House when he worked there as a deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2001 to 2003. His new book, Tempting Faith, tells the story of his experiences there, and reveals his disillusionment, especially about political promises made and not kept. While this duplicity will not come as a surprise to most observers, reading this book reminds readers of the fervor with which many young people commit to causes they believe in. The impressionable Kuo comes across as naïve on many of these pages. It’s his candor and sincerity that saves the day for readers of Tempting Faith. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 11, “This Is the White House,” pp. 167-170:


I had always thought of working in the White House the same way I thought about going to the moon. People went to the moon; it was surely breathtaking; it would be great to go there myself but I knew I wouldn’t. I wasn’t an astronaut. Yet there I was at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, learning the place as only a resident—or in my case a butler—can ever do in a house. The great discoveries weren’t in figuring out where the bowling alley was (sort of under the front lawn) or finding Teddy Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize medal casually displayed on a mantel. The revelations were more intimate: seeing flame damage on uncovered bricks from when the British burned the place down, finding lantern hooks still secured to outside walls, noticing that the “ground floor” of the White House, really a basement, smelled like an ordinary basement.

Perhaps because I knew my time there was brief by design and I would be long gone by the end of summer, I also reveled in the wonder of everything going on around me. At every message meeting I listened intently to discussions about every event; at domestic policy meetings, I did the same. So when Ken Mehlman, head of White House Political Affairs, briefed Domestic Policy staff on how we were to understand the political world, I paid close attention. I figured that if I understood White House politics enough, I could figure out a way to stir passion in the White House staff for the faith-based effort.

Ken’s briefing wasn’t really his. It was Karl’s. Ken’s job as head of Political Affairs wasn’t really his, either. That belonged to Karl, too. It was just that Karl couldn’t meet with everyone simultane­ously and therefore needed smart and able intermediaries to help.

Ken said that the country was more divided than at any point since the 1880s. No president had been elected with more than 50 percent of the vote since 1988. In congressional elections, Repub­licans held on to the House in ‘96, ‘98, and 2000 with about 48.5 percent of the vote. To win in early twenty-first-century politics was to steal just a percentage point, or less, from the other side.

Our focus for the 2002 midterm elections and the 2004 presi­dential race centered on several different demographic groups. For starters, we needed to maintain our base, defined as conserva­tives, farm voters, and so-called resource Republicans (a con­glomeration of rural voters who produce coal, steel, tobacco, and the like). Then we needed to “grow” Latinos, Catholics, suburban women, high-tech workers, and union members. Separately, we needed to “improve” African-American voters. Finally, and most importantly, we needed to remember the single most important group for us, crosscutting all the other categories: “believers.” Believers were people who opposed abortion, supported guns, opposed gay rights. Believers were evangelical Christians. And our White House political shop and therefore all the White House was obsessed with evangelical voters. Rove believed millions of them had stayed home in 2000 after the revelation of Bush’s drunk driving arrest. To win in ‘04 they had to be brought back into the fold.

Listening to all of this I realized I had passed through to the other side. I wasn’t just a Christian trying to serve God in politics. Now I was a Christian in politics looking for ways to recruit other Christians into politics so that we would have their votes. I couldn’t figure out if I was suddenly playing for a different team or if I was an Amway business owner suddenly let into some elite multilevel marketing club.

More significantly, I didn’t know what to do with that revela­tion. I had spent my years in the nation’s capital as part of a Christian movement to gain power. My spiritual struggles had to do with how we were arguing and how we were treating our ene­mies. In my best moments I feared I wasn’t representing Jesus. Now it was different. Now I had to ask if I was a corrupting force in other people’s faith. Chuck Colson inspired me to tackle great moral issues. Was I doing that, or was I part of an effort to get peo­ple to support a political leader? There were enormous differ­ences between the two possibilities. One sought to serve Jesus’ concerns for people through political ends. The other sought to serve a political end by using Jesus’ concerns as justification.

Unlike my first Washington go-round, I wasn’t swept up by the politics or the power. I loved that I got to fight for things in which I believed. That it was on behalf of as good a man as President Bush made it better. That it was with a dear friend made it a joy.

Max Finberg, an old college friend, said that the moment he heard I was working late, working weekends, and otherwise becoming work-obsessed, he would launch a one-person interven­tion. But he didn’t need to worry. It was just a tough but tempo­rary job, with the long hours required to get it done. My priorities were straight. There wasn’t any drifting from God, from Kim, from my two young daughters.

Mehlman highlighted our strategy for winning the targeted groups for Bush. Our priorities were reforming education, cutting taxes, strengthening the military (particularly against threats like China), modernizing Social Security, reforming Medicare, and empowering faith-based institutions. Our office made the list, but our place there seemed shaky.

Listening to Mehlman’s presentation in the midst of the fight to get the House to pass the legislation we never wanted in the first place made things clearer. White House staff didn’t want to have anything to do with the faith-based initiative because they didn’t understand it any more than did congressional Republicans. It wasn’t that midlevel staffers like the ones I regularly dealt with or senior staffers like Calio, Spellings, or Card were hostile to the ini­tiative. They didn’t lie awake at night trying to kill it. They simply didn’t care. It didn’t resonate with them. This was disappointing but not shocking. Compassion as policy really wasn’t what Repub­licans did. Republicans were for tax cuts, business growth, a strong military. All of this meant that making meaningful substan­tive changes would be challenging. Yes, I expected more from the president. I had hoped his commitment to compassion meant cre­ating a staff who valued it as much as he did. But maybe that many compassionate conservative Republicans didn’t exist.

At the same time, it couldn’t have been clearer that the White House needed the faith-based initiative because it had the poten­tial to successfully evangelize more voters than any other. The cam­paign team already knew compassionate conservatism played to a broad array of voters. Now, if it was handled correctly, it could turn even more heads. Women would see that this “different kind of Republican” delivered on his promise to help the homeless, build houses for struggling families, and help people find jobs. His­panic voters, who tended to be pro-life, pro-family, and pro-poor, would see he was a Republican who cared. The black community could even be persuaded that George W. Bush was worth trusting. They were open to it. As several African-American pastors had said during Bush’s December 2000 meeting with them, “We have no expectations; surprise us.” For evangelical Christians, who might not be thrilled with the initiative’s details, it nevertheless reinforced their belief in President Bush’s personal relationship with Jesus. That belief grounded their support of him.


In some respects, Tempting Faith is another installment in the growing library of books about the place of religion in American life. Kuo tells his personal story, and provides an insider’s view of the White House and its practices. Many readers will find this book to be a pleasure to read, while others will be disturbed by some of the practices described, and will be saddened by disillusionment.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2007 issue of Executive Times


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