- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000


There is a scene in Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" in which the novel's protagonists describe a meeting with the famed Mrs. Jellyby, a woman who "devotes herself entirely to the public." So absorbed is she in a project to educate the distant African natives of Borrioboola-Gha, however, that she cannot see to the needs of her own children and husband, all of whom find themselves, their dwelling and their lives in dirty disarray. Mrs. Jellyby's eyes, one Dickens character reports, "had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if … they could see nothing nearer than Africa."
Mrs. Jellyby's brand of telescopic philanthropy, as Dickens called it, comes to mind in the wake of news accounts that Vice President Al Gore may suffer from a similarly disabling malady. Mr. Gore can see cleaner water in Ohio by coincidence a key battleground state in the upcoming presidential election where he recently provided millions of dollars in grants to help farmers reduce runoff and protect their land. He can see more low-income housing around the country, resulting from millions of dollars in federal assistance he has proposed. Indeed, he can see his way to restore the entire "Earth's balance before the growing imbalance inflicts its greatest potential damage on our children and grandchildren," as he put it in "Earth in the Balance." What he couldn't see just down the hill from the Gore family estate in Carthage, Tenn., was the ugly, unhealthy plight of a poor family renting property from him. So focused was Mr. Gore's vision on the United States and the world that perhaps the family's misery was too close to see.
As described in this newspaper and just about everywhere else but the major TV networks, Mr. Gore's tenants had been reduced to living conditions unknown to those living in the vice president's mansion on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. The toilets overflowed, the sinks backed up, and the resulting odors alone, said tenant Tracey Mayberry, are "enough to make you sick."
For this Mrs. Mayberry and her family paid $400 per month to Mr. Gore. Others might have moved, but the family wasn't in the best condition to do so. Mrs. Mayberry's husband is disabled, one daughter is mentally retarded and another daughter suffers from a seizure disorder. They live on a combined $1,536 a month in Social Security benefits Mr. Mayberry receives in connection with his disability.
Despite their making repeated requests for repairs, Mr. Gore and his property managers apparently did not respond. She could not, she explained to a Nashville TV station, "get Al Gore to do nothing." To her, he was a slumlord. Like Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Gore and those he hired to manage the property were unmoved by the distress of those right in front of them at least until the story hit the airwaves.
When finally he did talk to Mrs. Mayberry, Mr. Gore apologized, saying he wasn't a "hands-on landlord." Given that as president he would be "landlord" of U.S. federal housing stocks, that may not be the best excuse to use. Perhaps he could say he consumed too much iced tea and was in the bathroom when the complaints came in his explanation for missing out on sensitive fund-raising discussions that might otherwise have implicated him in campaign-finance wrongdoing.
The vice president's approach to philanthropy is in some ways emblematic of contemporary liberalism. Its most visible spokespersons are no less "devoted to the public" in general than Mrs. Jellyby. They want higher minimum wages for all, health care for all, day care for all, a rebalanced Earth for all. Further, they claim a patent on good intentions. Those who dare to disagree with them, ostensibly over the means to the end, really just hate the poor, the elderly and the environment, the argument goes. Liberalism's agenda is not something about which reasonable people can disagree.
When Texas Gov. George W. Bush argued the case for "compassionate conservatism," Mr. Gore answered, "There is a difference between talking about compassion and actually putting your highest ideals into practice." The implication is that Mr. Bush isn't really compassionate. But if gouging poor tenants out of rent for a place without plumbing and running water is the vice president's idea of putting his ideals into practice, perhaps he should stick to talking about it.
There is at least one important difference between Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Gore, though. She does her philanthropy at the expense of herself and her family. Mr. Gore does it at the expense of the taxpayers and his impoverished tenants. He and his family can afford telescopic philanthropy. Can his presidential campaign?
"Don't talk to me of my duty as a child … where's ma's duty as a parent?" asks one of Mrs. Jellyby's daughters. "All made over to the public and Africa, I suppose. Then let the public and Africa show duty as a child; it's much more their affair than mine." Mr. Gore's hasty promise of repairs to Mrs. Mayberry suggests he understands that telescopic philanthropy is no substitute for real philanthropy: If he didn't do his duty to his own tenants, voters might not do theirs come the fall. But don't expect that to stop him from taking up the cause of the natives in Borrioboola-Gha.
E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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