Bush Loves Orphans Everywhere

Whatever happened to leading by example? When it comes to presidents and politicians, few ever do. Case in point: Several days ago, President Bush held a White House event to promote adoption. He announced the establishment of a federal adoption Web site that will feature profiles and pics of more than 6,500 kids available for adoption, and he introduced actor Bruce Willis as "our new national spokesman for children in foster care." With his wife at his side, Bush declared, "Here's what I love about adoption: It reveals the good heart of America" and he called for making adoption "a more common part of our life in America."

A simple question: If adoption is so swell, why did George and Laura not adopt? They had the means, especially after he made millions of dollars via his greased-with-favoritism purchase and sale of the Texas Rangers. And why don't they do it now? What could send a stronger signal? Millions of Americans took fashion cues from Jackie Kennedy. Many probably would be inspired by the Bushes, if the First Couple welcomed into their home and hearts a seven-year-old African-American girl who has been languishing in foster care (extra points if she is HIV positive). As for Bruce Willis -- Mr. Family Values -- he surely can afford the costs of caring for a few additional children.

There's nothing wrong with a president or a rakish box-office celebrity cheerleading for adoption, and government programs that encourage and ease adoption are, of course, commendable. But I'm tired of presidents who try to advance politically through feel-good rah-rahing. Bill Clinton was a pro in this regard -- hailing barbecue safety and neighborhood crime watch groups. And Bush aides have informed reporters that their boss, stealing this strategy from Clinton, will be pitching small-scale, feel-good initiatives, such as this adoption Web site.

In the past -- pre-Clinton, that is -- cabinet secretaries or lower federal officials would unveil these modest government efforts; presidents would not seek to cash in on them. But if a chief executive attempts to enhance his popularity by behaving as a president-preacher, it's fair to ask, why don't you act as you urge? At least, when Bush promoted fitness a few weeks ago, he put his legs where his mouth was and ran a three-mile race against his staff. (Did Dick Cheney call in sick that day?) One Bush official told The Washington Post, the fitness event "reminds people of why they like George Bush." Does that mean the war isn't working politically? FDR was able to be an inspiring wartime president -- and he couldn't even walk.

During the adoption ceremony, Bush noted, "For those of us who support the dignity of every human life, we have a responsibility to encourage hopeful lives for children who are born." This sounded like a reference to abortion -- a reminder that people who would force women to give birth to unwanted children ought to commit themselves to improving the adoption system. Good point. But, again, let's make this personal. Bush opposes abortion rights -- at least he has ever since he became interested in holding a statewide political office in Texas. (When he ran for Congress in 1978 -- and lost -- he told a reporter that abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor.) But he has never demonstrated he takes seriously the responsibility "to encourage hopeful lives" by adopting. In this way, he has been no different from many other anti-abortion politicians. During the 2000 presidential campaign, I interviewed Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate, on a cable network. At the end of the show, I asked why he and his wife, who have no children, never adopted. Didn't he believe that key figures of the anti-abortion movement, such as himself, had an obligation to lead on this front? Buchanan said he had some sort of heart condition, which he did not fully explain. The next day, a prominent Washington conservative called me and chortled. "I have a heart condition and I've been able to give birth and raise three children," she said. "What was he talking about?"

Back to Bush. At the White House, he noted the urgency of the matter at hand: "Right now there are about 130,000 children in our nation's foster care system waiting to be adopted -- 130,000 precious lives hoping to find a permanent home ... And every child deserves to be part of a permanent, loving family. As long as it's not those gays and lesbians who are the ones being, uh, doing the adopting." Actually, he didn't utter the last sentence of that quote. But he could have. During the presidential campaign, Bush said, "I don't support gay adoption...because I believe that society ought to aim for the ideal, and the ideal is for a man and a woman to adopt children." Which means that, for Bush, sticking to this "ideal" (which happens to make happy his religious right constituency) is more important than meeting the needs of those 130,000 youngsters.

Okay, that was an easy shot -- which, by the way, is not the same thing as a cheap shot. And here is another. Bush's pro-adoption photo-op came the day after he yanked $34 million in previously approved funds from the United Nations Population Fund. UNFPA mounts programs in 142 countries that provide contraception and gynecological services and that aim to prevent teen pregnancies and HIV/AIDS infection. The fund estimates that with $34 million it could avert 77,000 infant and child deaths, 4,700 maternal deaths, nearly 800,000 abortions, and 2 million unwanted pregnancies. How many of those kids might end up needing adoption?

If you've paid attention to this story, you know that Bush's decision marked another instance in which he has kowtowed to the demands of social conservatives, who claim the UNFPA has supported China's program of coerced abortions. But last spring a State Department fact-finding team trekked to China and found no evidence of direct UN involvement in coercive abortion or forced sterilization. It recommended handing the UNFPA the $34 million -- which represents about 13 percent of the fund's budget. (To assuage the imaginary concerns of the US anti-abortion movement, the UNFPA has, in the past, agreed not to spend any US funds in China. But apparently that's not good enough.) Without this money, according to Stirling Scruggs, a spokesman for the UNFPA, the fund will have to cut back a maternal mortality program in India, midwife training in Algeria, an AIDS program in Haiti, emergency obstetric care in Burundi, and other projects. Fortunately for the UNFPA, two days after Bush pulled the money, the European Union announced it would kick in an extra 32 million euros. But due to EU regulations, this money has to go to specific programs for sexual and reproductive health in 22 former European colonies. Consequently, it will not fill all the holes caused by Bush's decision. Women and children overseas will still suffer, thanks to Bush's -- and Karl Rove's -- pandering to the religious right.

So one day Bush helps kids find homes, on another he helps create orphans, HIV-infected infants, and unwanted children. Maybe Bush should promote a Web site that connects foster-care children in the United States (who are blocked from joining families headed by gay couples) with children in Burundi who are orphaned because their mother could not obtain obstetric services. That certainly would be an accurate manifestation of his small-scale compassionate conservativism.

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.

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