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In light of President George H.W. Bush’s life and legacy, we look back with regret at the lost opportunities from the days of a “thousand points of light.” But perhaps we can look forward to better days for the civic renewal agenda.

There have been two interesting developments over the past month for the civic renewal or “small community” agenda.  One is retrospective and a bit discouraging; the other is prospective and quite encouraging. There are important lessons for the latter embedded in the former.

The moment of retrospection came with the celebration of the 5,000th Daily Points of Light Award, which went to a retired couple from Union, Iowa, honoring their program to deliver millions of meals to poor children around the globe. The godfather of the “points of light” program, former President George H.W. Bush, was on hand at the White House for the commemoration, at which President Obama graciously hailed his efforts to encourage voluntarism in America.

The headlines evoked memories of the origins of the “points of light” idea. The phrase first appeared in then-Vice-President Bush’s speech accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention of 1988. Thanks to speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s account in What I Saw At the Revolution, we know a great deal about its intellectual and rhetorical origins.

Noonan was provided “the fist of the speech, the center of intellectual energy from which all else flowed” by Bill Gavin, a former Nixon speechwriter and author of Street Corner Conservative, a still-engaging account of the evolution of a young urban, ethnic, Catholic, New-Deal Democrat into what would become known as a “Reagan Democrat.” Gavin had sent her a “mini-essay on community” published in the obscure journal Catholicism in Crisis, edited by theologian Michael Novak and Philanthropy Daily’s own Scott Walter, then at AEI. (See the original version here and here.)

“Shambra [sic] argued that the old New Deal idea of national community – the vision of the country as one big family or town with a powerful central government to express and reinforce that vision – was over . . . and what had taken its place was something of synthesis of New Left and New Right impulses:  a nation of many different communities, formal and informal, living and working together.” [You know the old saying, “I don’t care what they write about me as long as they spell my name right"? She didn’t.]

“Gavin noted that George Bush’s views on local control, local involvement, and where the real wellsprings of American energy are . . . were perfectly reflected in Shambra’s and Novak’s work. And he was right, it was all there, I read and thought, This is Bush, this is what he means.”

In the speech itself, this became Bush’s insistence that we are not a national community, but rather a “nation of communities, of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique . . . a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

Although President Bush would go on to establish the Daily Points of Light Award in the early days of his administration, the fact is – with all due respect to Ms. Noonan – this was not Bush. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a public figure less familiar with or attached to local civic life, or more unwaveringly devoted to a career in national public service. He had spent his entire professional life advancing steadily upward by appointment and election through the massive, bureaucratic government institutions that virtually define centralized federal domination of American public life. 

In spite of some time spent at backyard barbeques with fellow oil executives in West Texas, he lacked genuine roots in Noonan’s everyday local communities, where most Americans live and wrestle with their mundane problems. This detachment became painfully apparent in his clumsy efforts to convey the “message: I care” in his failed re-election effort.

Nonetheless, many of us engaged in the struggle for local community renewal were greatly heartened at the time by the attention from Noonan/Bush. 

As we had long argued, it permitted conservatives to deploy a doctrine of community that would take some of the wind out of the sails of liberalism’s doctrine of great, national community.  And it would buff off the harsh edges of competitive, market-based conservatism into a “kinder, gentler” version. 

But the lack of follow-through proved that this was little more than a serendipitous rhetorical coup, achieved through some flukish back channels. In the long run, and taking nothing from the 5,000 Points of Light Award winners, Bush’s insubstantial efforts probably set back the cause of local community, coming as it did midway between President Reagan’s disappointing “private sector initiatives” effort and an equally disappointing foray by George W. Bush into “faith-based initiatives.”

Indeed, national political figures have proven themselves so inept at promoting the civic renewal agenda that one might conclude it’s impossible for them to do so without causing more harm than good. Perhaps it’s best to leave it to the unheralded struggles of local communities themselves, and their feisty but outgunned internet champions at Front Porch Republic, Philanthropy Daily, and (on the left) the Nonprofit Quarterly.

I’m not ready to give up on national political leadership quite yet, though, which leads me to the recent, more promising development for the civic renewal agenda. Late in June, Robert Costa at National Review Online wrote a piece entitled “Ryan’s Outreach:  A Quiet Pitch to the Poor.”  Paul Ryan, it seems, has spent a lot of time since the election of 2012 deliberately out of the limelight, pursuing a long-term effort to resurrect what he calls Kemp conservatism. 

As an aide to Jack Kemp in his earlier days, Ryan had come to admire his ability to reach out to and champion the interests of the poor and marginalized. One of Kemp’s intimates from those days and the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, Bob Woodson, is still active in public life, battling to sustain a voice for the poor on the right in the face of a powerful trend toward “virtue-of-selfishness,” Randian libertarianism. (Disclosure: I’m on CNE’s board.)

As Costa notes, Ryan sought out Woodson even before the 2012 election was over, asking Woodson to introduce him to small, grassroots organizations in low-income neighborhoods that were effectively addressing some of society’s most intractable problems. Since the election, the pace of visits has picked up, with Woodson taking Ryan – quietly, without fanfare or cameras – into communities around the country that haven’t been visited by a Republican since FDR’s time. There, Ryan spends time listening attentively to the testimony of former prisoners, addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes whose lives have been utterly transformed by the small, intimate, often faith-based communities where they now live and flourish.

Just how important these visits have been to Paul Ryan became apparent in the annual AEI Irving Kristol Lecture he delivered in May, entitled “Conservatism and Community.” Ryan introduced his star-spangled audience to James Woods, a convicted drug dealer with whom he had spent a great deal of time, and whose life had been turned around by Pastor Shirley Holloway’s ministry to the marginalized in Anacostia. “If you asked Pastor Holloway for her secret, she’d say her ministry uses two ingredients:  faith and love.  Her motto is, ‘We don’t see the problem. We see the person.'”

Ryan went on to note that “when we make policy, we should keep people like James in mind. Our job isn’t to replace the Pastor Holloways. It’s to support them.” Drawing on his own Catholic roots, Ryan noted the way to do this is through adherence to the doctrine of subsidiarity. Government shouldn’t “make decisions better left with the family or neighborhood,” he argued. “The people closest to the problem are the most likely to solve it – because they know the community best.”

Now, all this could just be more empty, Bush-like rhetoric, were it not for Ryan’s autobiography. As he explained in “Community and Conservatism,” he and his family had grown up in the midst of this same faithful, loving community-mindedness back in Janesville, Wisconsin.  His father had died when he was 16, so his “mother went out and got involved. She got involved in everything:  the school board, the local parish, the garden club, the bridge club. . . .  When a friend in Janesville lost a husband, Betty was the first to comfort.  And over time, the group [of widows] began to grow. Out of their loss, they created something new. They formed a community of support.”

As Bob Woodson put it in the Costa article, “[Ryan] doesn’t talk about it much, but I think his brokenness, from losing his father at a young age, has given him the ability to connect with the brokenness of others.  After his dad died, he and his mother had to rely on a network of people.  So when he talks about why community matters, he’s speaking from experience.”

Given Ryan’s roots in Janesville, his community message is something more than a rhetorical gimmick supplied by a skilled speechwriter. Rather, it’s in his very bones. As a young person, he had seen and experienced a kind of human brokenness for which love, faith, and community were the only balm. 

Small wonder, then, that he appreciates Pastor Holloway’s work for people like James Woods, as she surrounds him and others in her ministry with the very same love, faith, and community. As Woodson observes, Ryan’s understanding of his own brokenness is precisely what opens him up to a compassionate grasp of the brokenness of others. He is able to embrace the achievements of a small grassroots group in Anacostia because precisely the same principle animates civil society in Janesville. 

Should Ryan aspire to higher national office, of course, the pressure will mount for him to enunciate an aggressive national agenda for our domestic problems. It’s at that point that many community-minded conservatives cast off their principles and reach for the levers of top-down, national policy, promising the usual hopelessly sweeping and ambitious programs. 

But Ryan seems to be steeling himself against that temptation. Having spent a great deal of time and some very emotional moments with Pastor Holloway, James Woods, and hundreds of other grassroots leaders around country, he is unlikely to forget his own advice to “keep people like James in mind” when we make policy, and seek to support, not replace, the Shirley Holloways of our neighborhoods. He understands that programs only see the problem, while only communities see the person.

While we look back with regret at the lost opportunities from the days of a “thousand points of light,” then, perhaps we can look forward to better days for the civic renewal agenda, as Paul Ryan spends more time among groups embodying it, and sees reflected back to him his own experience.  

What for President Bush was a graceful rhetorical flourish, with almost no connection to his own upbringing, is for Congressman Paul Ryan his life story. For Ryan grew up within and was sustained by points of light that others only glimpse from afar. Whatever political path Ryan follows, let’s hope that his current work will put the idea and the practice of community back at the center of conservatism.

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