Life Watch: The New Pro-Life Hope?

I have a friend, a priest, who has come to cut a considerable figure as a public person, in letters and in politics. He writes well and often, he has a deft touch as an editor, and most improbable of all, he has a facility for drawing into a common, civil conversation—and at times even into collaboration—people who would ordinarily flee one another’s company. He consults with the Holy Father, and he was invited to the White House often during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. It is no surprise, then, that political figures and would-be candidates tend to seek out his company. They use him, in effect, to take “soundings,” to see how they and their “messages” are likely to be received among people who are quite serious about their religious commitments—and especially among those who are deeply anchored in the pro-life cause.

Yet, for a man so savvy about the ways of the world, so familiar with the shallows and the limits of politicians, he shows a charming knack of guessing wrong politically. I say “charming” because his defects as a reader of the political tea leaves really spring from his good nature—from his buoyancy and his unrelenting “hopefulness.” I recall feeling so deeply reassured when he told me in 1992—and told me with that timber of conviction in his voice—that there was nothing to fear: The American people would sober up by the fall, turn away from Clinton, and reelect George Bush. A few years later, in the glow of brandy after supper, he looked ahead to 1996 and remarked to his friends gathered around that it would be such a wondrous, transforming event if Colin Powell should emerge as a political man and turn out to be “pro-life.” Yes, it could have been an epiphany—it could have been one of those events so dramatic that it could rearrange the political landscape. Powell did emerge and proclaim himself a Republican and a conservative on certain social issues—but alas, the dream dissolved; he was not what some of us so wished him to be.

All of this must be taken as a certain background to the scene that took place in the middle of May at a similar gathering of friends after dinner, in the benign haze induced by brandy and good cigars. My friend, the priest, announced that he had just had a private meeting with George W. Bush, and that he was much encouraged: The Republican candidate for president in 2000 was likely to be either George W. Bush or Steve Forbes, and both, he was now certain, were firm, pro-life candidates. George W. Bush? The current governor of Texas, son of the former president? The new Pro-Life Hope?

The meeting had taken place at Bush’s initiative. He had sought out my friend as a means of connecting himself to writers and pro-life leaders in the East, and to provide assurances about himself. He knew that a certain disappointment still attached to his father, but he insisted that, in his decisions, in his executive orders and appointments, the elder Bush had been a consistently pro-life president. That claim, of course, was hardly contestable, but in contrast with Bill Clinton, any Republican of the past would look like a pro-life president. Of Bush’s steady but dry loyalty, there was little doubt. Where he was wanting was in that critical need, finding its focus on the president, to frame the issue, convey the principles, and shape the public sentiment. There, the deficits of President Bush had become legendary—and the price is still being paid.

The younger Bush recognized all of that, and he suggested that on these matters he was seasoned longer than his father in his pro-life views. What were those views? He said he accepted the notion, held forth a couple of years earlier by the Ramsey Colloquium in First Things, that all lives were to be welcomed, that human life was to be protected by the law from its beginning to its close. As governor, he insisted, he endorsed and supported every pro-life measure. For the moment, in the current political season, as he managed his reelection as governor, he would not place the “life issues” at the center of his campaign or say much about them. But if he moved to a presidential candidacy in 1999 and 2000, those issues would have a prime standing. And if he were elected, he could be counted on, as president, to be as faithful and reliable in supporting the pro-life cause as he has been as governor.

This testimony, relayed by our friend with sympathy and hope, nevertheless induced a certain skepticism among the hearers. Just to compare notes, I called another friend from Texas who is quite experienced in politics and the pro-life movement. When I recapitulated the report, she took it as plausible, though she also laughed and remarked that the conversation was strikingly similar to one she had with the young George W. Bush in her own kitchen in 1988. He was assuring her, at the time, that he was more conservative, more pro-life than his father, and that he opposed abortion in categorical terms—meaning no concessions to the famous exceptions for rape and incest. But when he subsequently ran for governor, he would indeed incorporate the exceptions for rape and incest. Still, he might have found, as a politician, that the public sentiment on this matter—the exception for rape and incest—was just too immovable, at least for now. And it could be that, like many other political men, he had not figured out quite yet how he might accommodate that passion of the public without accepting its principle.

There were other odd moves of this kind in the record of the younger Bush. But they could be explained away in political terms without denying his interest, in the main, in doing the right thing. The source of uneasiness, for my friend in Texas, lay elsewhere, in the configuration that has been described in the details of the governor’s record. Bush has made a show of favoring “abstinence” for teenagers over condoms in the schools, and he has been a strong supporter of adoption. In other words, his accent has been on the “alternatives” to abortion, to things that make abortion appear less “necessary” or unavoidable. But all of that rather steers around any attempt to place legal restrictions on abortions themselves. My friend thought that the governor had been a bit listless in supporting bills on parental notification and consent, but even these measures—we need to remind ourselves—are still consistent with the notion of “pro-choice.” The governor need not offend here the old Republicans who may favor the “choice” for abortion; he may simply argue that the “choice” be made with mature counsel.

Of course, it might be claimed that the Supreme Court has placed serious restraints on what the states can enact in restricting abortion. But even within those limits, some states and governors have sought to go further. Governor Bush may indeed be a Pro-Life Hope, but his record is a kind of Rorschach blot, and it invites people as sympathetic as my friend, the priest and writer, to find in that blot the most hopeful design. From another angle, though, we might find a more sober guidance by reworking the maxims of Sam Goldwyn. Goldwyn remarked that a verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s written on, and we might say that political assurances—rendered in the most private, guarded settings—are simply not assurances that can be counted on in politics.

There is a massive difference, after all, that comes along with the discipline of politics in a republic. In a public contest for power, appeals have to be made in public. Deals may be struck in private, but interests have to be reconciled, groups have to be appealed to in public settings, and that appeal must alert everyone else. When Harry Truman’s policies on civil rights stirred a defection in the Southern Dixiecrats, they also brought a firmer attachment from African American voters in the North. When Truman began to face down the Russians, he sparked a defection on the Left, from a pro-Communist faction headed by Henry Wallace. But the same things that moved the Left out of the party brought back many conservative Catholics, especially Germans and Italians, who had fallen away from the Democrats during World War II. In short, under the conditions of a public politics, it is hard to be all things to all people—unless politics can be played for a longer while behind closed doors.

With a sense of those ancient, gross lessons, our suspicions may be rightly aroused in the first place when the governor of Texas finds it necessary to have private, closeted meetings with a prominent pro-life writer. If that governor claims that he can be counted on as a public man in shaping the public’s understanding, then why would it not be a more fitting source of assurance that he do something, visible, audible, in public, to make the point and impart a principle? In the absence of that posture, cultivated in public, should anyone be much surprised if another President Bush shows a dry willingness to sign pro-life measures, but not much of an interest in taking the lead or making the case in public? We could be destined, in a familiar style, to record our disappointment, but we should spare ourselves any tendency to outrage, for the signs, with Governor Bush, were there to be seen.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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