WHEN TEXAS GOV. George W. Bush made his now infamous appearance at the altar of the religious right, Bob Jones University, we skeptics assumed Mr. Bush's mission was to solidify his support among Christian conservatives in the pivotal South Carolina primary, and, in the process, remind the faithful of his Christian rebirth two decades ago.
But I'm here to testify, brothers and sisters: What the Bob Jones event did instead was to turn little George into a born-again centrist. Why, no sooner had he put the insurgent candidacy of Sen. John McCain away with the help of the Christian soldiers of the right than Mr. Bush put away his Bible and picked up policy papers full of solidly centrist policies.
Oh Lord, what a transformation. I want to raise my hands heavenward and shout, Amen! Just last week, Mr. Bush's proposal to post the Ten Commandments in public schools lost its importance. In his salvation, Mr. Bush now sees the need for preschool federal education assistance. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Mr. Bush has had a profound change of faith. More federal money for public schools. God be praised!
Why, it was only two years ago that Gov. Bush tried to take $250 million from Texas public elementary schools to pay for his ill-conceived property tax cut. Now presidential-hopeful Bush is proposing a $5-billion reading program and offering tax breaks to draw some of the teachers' union vote from Vice President Al Gore. That's only a fraction of the $13.4 billion he proposes to spend in school aid over five years.
In fact, while congressional Republicans are advocating block grants and limited federal control, Mr. Bush has been promoting federal mandates for diagnostic reading tests, tutoring and balanced curricula in exchange for federal grants. He has been reborn! Then again, after a $2.1-trillion tax cut, there won't be a whole lot left for reading programs.
But educational rebirth wasn't the whole story. After siding with big "bidness" (that's business in Texas -- having lived there several years, I can use the term), the insurance boys, HMOs and any other large contributor from the huge health industry, Mr. Bush blocked a watered-down patients bill of rights that would have allowed patients to sue providers when given bad medical care or none at all. But since his centrist rebirth, Mr. Bush has become a born-again patients-bill-of-rights disciple, insisting he was really for a stronger bill, this after saying he supported the bill, this after saying he wrote the bill. You get the idea. When you are reborn, wondrous things can happen.
But if you need any more evidence of Mr. Bush's born-again centrism, look at all the news photos last week of the governor's appearances with little kids -- of all colors. The Lord must have told George II on the road from Bob Jones University to the inner city that kids are our future and the government has a duty -- a duty, I say! -- to protect innocent youth.
This from the same Mr. Bush who made it damn near impossible for 200,000 uninsured kids to get medical care because it would have dipped into $189 million of interest from the state's share of a tobacco lawsuit. Texas (second only to California in numbers of uninsured kids) has never looked favorably on the poor. But, we sinners, who at the time saw this as a callous attempt to keep Texas welfare rolls from rising during the presidential race, obviously misread Mr. Bush. How callous of us.
And praise the Lord that the word "environment" passed Mr. Bush's lips last week. He might have looked the other way when faced with the opportunity to stop 30 years of unrestrained dumping in his home state, but now Mr. Bush wants to clean up abandoned industrial sites nationwide. This from the governor of the most polluted state, who appointed members of the chemical industry to the board that regulates the state environment. This from the man who regarded laissez-faire environmentalism as benign neglect. I was lost, but now I'm found, was blind but now I see: dirty air, polluted rivers and corporate polluters everywhere! George, how could we have doubted you?
Much of these facts about Mr. Bush's record come from Molly Ivins' must-read book, "Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush." I know what you're thinking: Ol' Beckel and Ms. Ivins are leftists, hellbent on destroying bidness.
For the record, I checked Ivins' facts and found them not only accurate but also a tad understated. Now, I want to believe that, somehow, Mr. Bush got reborn a centrist after the Bob Jones University visit. I really do. But, you see, I was born at night but not last night. Vice President Gore will crucify Mr. Bush on all this; the voters will get a wake-up call; and Mr. Bush will be forced to depart the road to Damascus for Interstate 35 back to Austin. Praise the Lord!
Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984.