Pity poor John DiIulio. Just two days ago, he had everything your run-of-the-mill, superstar college professor could ask for. A cushy endowed chair at a prestigious Ivy League university. An impeccable scholastic reputation. A Rolodex of academic and political contacts worth a small fortune. Now, just 48 hours and one presidential appointment later, Penn's Patron Saint of Political Science is headed down I-95 to tackle one of the biggest political headaches ever to hit the Beltway. In taking the job as head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, DiIulio has literally thrown himself into a whole different political dimension. It's a dimension where the theory of policy meets the drama of real life. It's where success is measured in terms of dollars, cents and statistics -- not in published articles. And it's where, sadly enough, DiIulio's incredible talents may end up going to waste. The simple truth is that John DiIulio is a battle-tested academic with the intellect and the tenacity to enact some serious policy change. His success over the years, say those who have worked with him, has come because of his unique ability to blend his scholarly mind with his street savvy. When he came to Penn, in fact, Political Science Department Chair Jack Nagel said DiIulio possessed a "rare combination" of academic insights and practical knowledge. Unfortunately, the skills of a spinmeister -- rather than an academic -- are likely going to be more important in leading the nation's newest and most controversial federal program. Since Monday, when President Bush announced the new faith-based initiative while DiIulio will lead, criticism has erupted nationwide over the program, which many say poses a fundamental threat to the traditional separation of church and state. Many of Tuesday morning's editorial pages blasted the new president and his pet program. The New York Times, for one, said that the new initiative could end up "trampling the rights of all Americans and hurting even those groups it intends to help." And that wasn't even the worst of it. Considering the bold proposition of diverting federal funds to religious institutions to enact social programs, DiIulio and those in his new office can expect nothing but a continued deluge of opposition in their first few months of operation. The American Civil Liberties Union -- long an enemy of any proposal that includes the words "government" and "religion" in the same sentence -- wasted little time in declaring its own vehement opposition to the plan. "This new Bush initiative represents a faith-based prescription for discrimination," ACLU Washington Director Laura Murphy wrote in a Monday statement. "What the president is proposing will open the Bob Jones Universities of the world to receiving federal funds without any civil rights safeguards." Biting opposition like that from the ACLU can be expected to follow virtually any major political undertaking. In a Bush White House, it can be expected to erupt following almost every sentence that floats out of the president's mouth. But the opposition to this new faith-based plan will be even stronger, and will, before long, take an entirely different pathway: litigation. And that's when Penn is going to miss John DiIulio the most. Because while our students continue hearing the lectures of lesser professors, DiIulio is going to be playing the role of government negotiator, diplomat and lawyer -- hardly fitting positions for a scholar of his credentials. Maybe George W. Bush decided that DiIulio -- who vocally denounced the Supreme Court decision that handed Bush the presidency -- would make a fitting sacrificial lamb in his first try at faith-based funding. Or maybe our new president truly does believe that the professor from South Philadelphia is the right man to coordinate the challenges that will come with deciding how and when religious service groups will qualify for federal funding. One way or another, though, the first few months of the initiative are going to involve a heavy dose of wheeling and dealing -- and a significantly smaller amount of substantive policy work. DiIulio's significant scholastic strength will be wasted organizing legal and political defenses. And while we at Penn wait for the good professor to return after his six month stint -- a laughably unrealistic tenure considering the pace of activity in D.C. -- little if any serious change is going to become reality. So pity John DiIulio, for the firestorm of rhetoric and bureaucracy in which he will soon find himself. But also pity this University, for letting one of its very brightest stars float away just as he was getting warmed up.Comments powered by Disqus
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