There can be only so many ways to make a big first impression on the president of the United States, but it's a safe bet that no one else has used the tactic inadvertently discovered by H. James Towey.
Towey, a former lawyer to Mother Teresa and a self-described "pro-life Democrat," has run President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives since 2002. The White House announced in January that he will stay on for Bush's second term. It also rewarded his politically valuable -- and legally controversial -- efforts to help religious charities win federal grants by promoting him to assistant to the president, from deputy assistant.
H. James Towey, head of the president's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has a portrait in his office of Mother Teresa, who he says strongly influenced him.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
H. James Towey
Title: Assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Education: Bachelor of science in accounting, Florida State University; law degree, FSU.
Family: Married; four sons and a daughter.
Career highlights: Founder and president, Aging With Dignity; Florida state health official; aide to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.); lawyer and volunteer for Mother Teresa in Mexico, India and Washington, D.C.; legislative director for Sen. Mark O. Hatfield Jr. (R-Ore.).
Pastimes: Sports fan, especially FSU football and basketball.
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But that's not how Towey first impressed Bush. They were introduced by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, days after the president's first inauguration in January 2001. The president and first lady Laura Bush immediately offered Towey and his wife, Mary, a personal tour of their White House quarters.
"It was very gracious of them, God knows they had a million things to do," Towey recalled. "So when Mary and I got home, I said, 'What could we do to thank them for that?' " Figuring the Bushes already had plenty of worldly goods, the Toweys decided to give them a rosary blessed by Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun who is likely to be declared a saint for her work with the poor in Calcutta. Mary Towey volunteered a felt pouch with a drawstring from her dresser drawer, Jim Towey dropped the rosary into it, and they sent it off.
Less than 48 hours later, Towey said, he got an urgent call from the White House.
"First of all, the president and first lady were deeply touched by the beautiful rosary that you sent from Mother Teresa," the caller said. "Second of all, would you like the children's teeth back?"
It's unclear whether Towey's ardent Catholicism, his fathering of five children -- all still under the age of 12 -- or his puckish humor were the reason, but Bush turned to him when the faith-based office's first director, John J. DiIulio Jr., quit after seven months of butting heads with both Congress and Christian conservatives.
At the time, the initiative appeared to be going nowhere. Bush said he wanted to unleash the nation's "armies of compassion" by allowing religious groups to receive federal grants to shelter the homeless, counsel drug addicts and work with troubled teens -- and he thought they should be able to do so without watering down their religious identity.
But Congress objected to allowing charities to get taxpayer dollars and still hire or fire employees on the basis of religion. Also, many religious conservatives were wary of government entanglements.
The prematurely graying, ever smiling Towey (pronounced TOO-ee) took over the embattled faith-based office with a characteristic blend of self-deprecation and supreme moral confidence.
"My career goal," he told reporters who asked why he wanted the job, "is to get to heaven."
Since then, Towey, 49, has led the administration's effort to bypass the roadblocks in Congress through regulatory action. Ten federal agencies, including the Agriculture Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, have established offices to help religious organizations compete for grants. Those agencies also have written 15 regulations that "together mark a major shift in the constitutional separation of church and state," according to a 2004 report by the nonpartisan Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.
In a reversal of policy, for example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development now provides grants to construct buildings that are used for worship, as long as the buildings are also used for government-funded social services. The Department of Veterans Affairs no longer requires drug treatment providers to certify that they exert "no religious influence."
In a partial tally in May, the White House said at least $1.17 billion went to faith-based groups in fiscal 2003.