Nowadays when you mention the book Profiles in Character to Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and, as it happens, the coauthor of Profiles in Character, he immediately cracks wise.
“You mean you actually found a copy?” he says. “A major opus. A big bestseller. How much did you pay for it? A buck? Nothing? Or did they pay you to take it off their hands?”
Jokes aside, the book offers an interesting footnote in the evolution of Jeb Bush. He ran for governor in 1994 as a “head-banging” (the odd description is his) right-winger. Four years later he ran as a conservative who “wanted to open his heart to people.” What happened in between, from head-banger to heart-opener, is reflected in Profiles in Character.
After losing his first gubernatorial campaign, Bush fell in with a financial firm and founded the ferociously fricative Foundation for Florida’s Future, a think tank devoted to state politics and public policy. Lacking intellectual pretensions himself, Bush has always liked to surround himself with think tank types. He had earlier sat on the board of the Heritage Foundation. One of Heritage’s signature initiatives in the mid-’90s was The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, overseen and publicized by the conservative superstar William Bennett, who had worked as Ronald Reagan’s education secretary and George H.W. Bush’s drug czar.
Bennett’s index was uniformly depressing: a series of upward slopes showing 30-year increases in crime, divorce, abortion, drug abuse, drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, and—to use a phrase that these days sounds as fusty as a Wesleyan hymn—out-of-wedlock births. The index seemed to capture something gloomy in the conservative temperament of the day, as it became clear that the economic renaissance of the Reagan years had not reversed the culture’s steady march to libertinism, its “social regression,” as Bennett called it. Bennett found his own answer to the crisis not in Reaganite tax cuts or business deregulation but in an issue that at first blush seems far beyond economics or government policy: the revival of character through the cultivation of virtue. His massive collection of moralizing fables and legends, The Book of Virtues, became one of the great publishing successes of the 1990s.
Virtue back then was much in demand, at least as a political topic, even when the word itself wasn’t used. Entire school districts gave themselves over to elaborate “character education” curriculums, complete with block-letter banners and wall posters exhorting the children to practice honesty and compassion, giving elementary schools the feel of a Maoist reeducation camp run by Barney the dinosaur. Prodigious wonders were ascribed to character ed and its emphasis on virtue: President Clinton advocated it as a means to prevent shootouts among the young scholars in high school. Even the first lady, Hillary Clinton, briefly explored the relationship between personal virtue and public policy in a curious concoction she called the “politics of meaning.”
“We were real interested in what Bennett was doing with his index,” Bush says now, “and we [he and his coauthor, a young think tanker named Brian Yablonski] wanted to do something like that for Florida.” Bush had come to believe that his ’94 campaign’s exclusive emphasis on policy was misbegotten—boring to voters and somehow off the point. Their compilation of data for their state was every bit as depressing as the numbers Bennett adduced for the country at large. Over the previous decades, while Florida’s state population had doubled, juvenile crime had risen more than 350 percent; out-of-wedlock births, 300 percent; divorces by 322 percent; children on welfare, 333 percent; and so on. Not every trend line was going up, however: SAT scores in Florida had declined by 62 points in 25 years. And the government’s growth had outpaced the growth of the population—an increase of 287 percent in the number of full-time government employees. “Our social structure buckles,” Bush and Yablonski wrote.
When we look to our children, we see juvenile crime, drug abuse, teen suicide, and the poverty of an education. When we look to the adults, we see many of the same problems. . . . When we look to the government, we see increased spending with no correlation whatsoever to results, layered bureaucracies, less effective output, personal ambition, special interest and self-interest at the expense of the whole.