- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

“Compassionate conservatism” and compassionate anything else have one thing in common — compassion. The nation is — by which I mean the People of this Great Nation are — in a moment of need. What they need is not more money, though lower gas prices and speedier contributions to Katrina’s displaced Americans would be a relief. Not an assurance we will stay the course in Iraq, stem the backsliding on narcotics in Afghanistan, or turn down the deficit. What we need is the tonic Ronald Reagan so often provided — depth of understanding and simple communication.

A leader explains the world to those he leads. He sees more, hears more and by definition has access to more information than any who write columns or click the remote for a status on the world. He can offer hard facts, weave them knowledgeably into their proper context, and provide, by acknowledging both the pain and promise, real comfort. He puts the present in perspective, and puts the future back on canvas. Through his words, we see more clearly who we are as a nation and where we are going.

By addressing fears and confirming hopes, a leader gives the people renewed strength and inspiration. Those who trust in him are given a chance to affirm their trust; those reluctant to trust are given reasons to rethink their reluctance. He extends the olive branch, invites greater unity — a vital part of working through sadness and crisis.

He stands tall with ease but does not hide discomfiting realities. He infuses his listeners with hope when they need it most, shares his can-do spirit and rekindles shaken confidence. He draws clarity from the murkiness, dispels confusion and reminds us we are, as always, “one Nation under God.”

Simple communication does not heal all wounds, make whole our losses or bring back those we love. But it does offer — since humans communicate by speaking — a real and necessary balm for the burn, empathy through language, a connection to those led. We are thawed by knowing our shock is not felt in isolation, that the present is not permanent.

We are warmed — if only by degrees — in the knowledge our leaders feel heartache too, have the stamina to carry on, even as they turn into the wind. If they are not deterred, we are not deterred. If they are up night and day to put wrong right, we shall be also.

Winston Churchill famously summoned the spirit of the British during the Battle of Britain’s relentless months of destruction. Ronald Reagan did it repeatedly in the dark days of Soviet saber-rattling, when Marine lives were lost in Lebanon, when we lost the Challenger, when we needed his confidence to boost our own. He was invariably right: The future was brighter.

Rudolph Giuliani reminded us, while our burden was “almost too much to bear,” we were one people and a nation that would not break. Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell have each, in turn, given this nation such hope. With their words comes new hope, new determination. That is the power of communication. It is time again.

Hurricane Katrina has left us shuddering at what nature, catastrophic misfortune and human frailties can do to the face of a nation. Gas prices have risen at unsettling speed to uncommon highs. Iraq is a weight we proudly bear for generations of future Americans, but which nevertheless weighs on the heart and on the nation. Afghanistan faces uncertain days ahead.

We are willing and able, proud and determined, undeterred and compassionate — but there is an edginess in the breeze. It is the sound of 295 million people who need to hear from their president. He will address them Thursday night from hurricane-devastated Louisiana.

It is time to hear words that will accurately describe, emotionally reflect, and emphatically lift us to a new level — from where we are to where we will be. The compassionate conservative leads with heart and mind, and is needed most when the strain on both is greatest. This is such a moment.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group in Gaithersburg, Md.

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