The most important domestic policy Parent: Former Clinton adviser does not regret quitting to raise his son. But politics remains a strong pull for him.

Catching Up With...

Bill Galston

March 02, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Bill Galston has enough time for Ezra these days.

And he's certain he made the right decision 22 months ago when, after serving more than two years as deputy domestic policy adviser in Bill Clinton's White House, he quit to spend more time with his young son.

But he hasn't put politics behind him. Just the high energy, adrenalin pumping, every-waking-minute kind of politics.

Which isn't to say he's not busy in his new life.

William A. Galston is a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs. He teaches. He also directs a formal group of about a dozen scholars who discuss and study the philosophical elements of public policy.

Advocate for civility

He is the chairman of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. He continues as an adviser to the Democratic Leadership Council, an influential group of centrist Democrats in Washington. He heads the National Commission on Civic Renewal, which is trying to find ways to restore some civility to a society he believes is sorely in need of it.

Ezra Galston is 12 now. His father will explain, if asked, how he arrived at his decision to jump Clinton's buoyant political ship on his son's behalf. It wasn't a rash impulse.

"Look, it was an exciting and wonderful job. But I left for strong family reasons. I have never regretted the decision."

In the White House, Galston advised the president on a wide range of issues, including education, job-training legislation, family and children's matters and religion in public.

He helped expand the popular Head Start program for preschoolers to include children 3 and younger. And he says he helped draft portions of the president's welfare reform initiative, specifically the piece that dealt with teen-age pregnancy. Clinton spoke out about teen pregnancy in his 1995 State of the Union address.

Something missing

But while carrying out these many demanding tasks, Galston began to realize he was missing something. His son was growing up, and he was rarely there to help the process along.

"I spent a lot of time with my son for the first eight years. After I entered the White House, I had little time for him. I became acutely aware of the fact that you only get one chance to be a parent.

"I couldn't do both, and I had to make a choice even though it meant leaving behind something I very much valued."

Bill Galston is 51, a diminutive man with foamy white hair. He has big eyes framed by glasses with flesh-colored plastic frames, eyes in a very thin face. He has small, red hands. He is wiry, energetic, as his schedule suggests.

Galston speaks fluently about the issues that concern him most, though his flow is interrupted constantly by the interjection of the word "yo," a verbal tic.

He is an academic, the Brooklyn-born son of a Navy biologist and later professor at the University of California and Yale. He grew up in the suburbs of New Haven, went off to Cornell in New York for a bachelor's degree in history and government.

In 1968 he was drafted into the Marines ("two weeks before my wedding day," he recalls), and narrowly missed being sent to Vietnam. Upon discharge in 1970, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and emerged three years later with a Ph.D. in political science.

While teaching at the University of Texas in Austin, Galston "got seduced into national politics."

This first affair ended badly. He had signed on to help Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan in the presidential campaign of 1984. "When that campaign crashed and burned" he sought refuge in a Washington think tank, the Roosevelt Center for American Policy, now defunct. The second time around was equally unrewarding. It was in Sen. Al Gore's presidential bid in 1988. After that, he began doing research for the Democratic National Committee. Briefly he bolted the party and became a speech-writer in John Anderson's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1980.

Success came with the election of Clinton, who invited him to work in the crucible of the White House. Somewhere along the way, Galston had done something right.

Currently, the business of "civic renewal" seems to be at the top of Galston's agenda. He wants to do something about what he describes as the "coarsening of social life."

"There is all sorts of evidence that the American people are very concerned with the state of civil society," he says. "There has been a withdrawal of confidence in public institutions. There is a decline of social trust. We are much less trusting of each other than we once were. There is a falloff in volunteerism, and people have a sense of a general moral decline in the country."

Another turning point?

This is not the first time in this country's history this state of affairs has developed. Galston refers to a similar period of social instability and institutional weakness at the end of the 19th century. It sparked a major national reform movement that expressed itself in a renewal of political participation and volunteerism.

Something similar, he believes, is needed today. "PTAs, the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts were important [in responding to the problem] in the past. We may need something comparable at the end of the 20th century."

Given his taste for dealing with large social issues, Galston is asked if he ever thinks of a time when he might go back to politics at the more exalted levels.

"Sometime," he says.

"When?"

"About the time Ezra's getting ready to go to college."

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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