Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Northwest Washington, Claude A. Allen thought of the White House mainly as a destination for school field trips. Never did he imagine that he would work there.
That explains why Allen says he pinches himself now and again as a reminder that he really is President Bush's top domestic policy adviser. "To be in the position that I'm in, serving our country, serving under this president at this time, is humbling," Allen said in a recent interview. "It is also very, very indicative of what the greatness of this country is about."
"To be in the position that I'm in, serving our country, serving under this president at this time, is humbling," said Claude A. Allen, in his West Wing office at the White House next to a photograph of President Bush.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
Claude A. Allen
Title: Assistant to the president for domestic policy.
Family: Married; four children, ages 12, 8, 4 and 1.
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; law degree, Duke Law School.
Career highlights: Deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Virginia secretary of health and human resources; Virginia office of the attorney general; attorney, Baker & Botts; staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee; staff, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Pastimes: Traveling, spending time with family, reading about the life of William Wilberforce, an 18th century-born British member of Parliament, abolitionist and evangelical Christian.
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Operating out of his office on the second floor of the West Wing, Allen, one of the most senior African American members of the administration, advises Bush on the nation's sprawling domestic agenda: Health care, veterans' issues, labor, education, justice, housing, Native American policy, space exploration -- all that, and more, falls under his purview.
"You're really a jack of all trades in terms of domestic policy," Allen said of his role. "My job is to coordinate all the activities across the agencies and advise the president on decisions he needs to make in these areas."
Working in an administration known for tightly controlling policy from the White House, Allen has a job that is less developing policy than it is coordinating the work of Cabinet agencies across the government to ensure that they are in line with the president's agenda. Allen meets with Bush several times a week, either to provide briefings on agency activities or to present policy options for the president to choose from.
"The president is the one who lays out the vision," Allen said. "Our job is to help bring the issues to the president so he can apply his vision to the decision-making process."
That vision has been controversial. After running for office as a "compassionate conservative," Bush has been sharply criticized by congressional Democrats and advocacy groups for proposing long-term budget cuts to programs that provide a lifeline to the poor, including public housing subsidies and food stamps.
Also, although Bush has talked passionately about the need for a guest-worker program that would offer legal status and protections to the nation's estimated 10 million illegal immigrants, critics said he has done little to break through the stubborn opposition to the idea among many Republicans in Congress.
"If the president and White House are serious about the issue, they would spend more time and energy on it," said J. Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Allen called the president's critics shortsighted. "Compassion is not defined by how many dollars you throw at a problem," he said. "Compassion is defined by how you demonstrate through the end result of the program . . . [that you are] changing lives."
Allen, 44, a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor, was appointed to his current job in January, after serving as deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency's No. 2 post. There, he worked on addressing homeless issues and health disparities between white and minority communities, and became a vocal proponent of abstinence-only AIDS prevention programs.
Bush tapped Allen for a federal appeals court seat in 2003, but congressional Democrats blocked the nomination, citing Allen's relative lack of legal experience. Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland also protested the choice, saying that the seat Allen would have taken on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit had traditionally been filled by a Marylander. Allen lives in Virginia.
There were also concerns about the depth of Allen's conservative ideology. During his confirmation hearing, Senate Democrats quizzed Allen about a comment he made in 1984 when he served as spokesman for the reelection campaign of then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). He told a reporter that then-Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., Helms's Democratic opponent, was vulnerable because of his links to the "queers."
Critics charged that Allen used the word to disparage gays. But during his judicial confirmation hearing, Allen told skeptical members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he intended the word to convey "odd, out of the ordinary, unusual," not to denigrate gays.
Looking back, Allen said: "My confirmation experience was fine. . . . I don't look to that as any problem."
Allen was born in Philadelphia and moved as a young child to Washington, where his family lived in a two-bedroom apartment near Missouri Avenue and Fifth Street. His father drove a plumbing supply truck, and his mother worked in a Catholic school rectory. He attended Archbishop Carroll High School before moving with his family to North Carolina.
Allen went on to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in government and linguistics and becoming a born-again Christian. And although his parents were staunch Democrats, he chose to become a Republican, saying he identified more closely with the party's platform.
After graduating from college, Allen got his start in politics working for Helms, the former senator seen by his many admirers as a conservative stalwart and by his many critics as a race-baiting bigot.
Allen counts the controversial Helms as a mentor, calling him a man of integrity and principle. "You could disagree with him at the end of the day, or you could agree with him at the end of the day," Allen said. "What he did was make sure his facts were right and that he had an argument."
Helms and Allen did differ over the senator's determined opposition to the establishment of a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Allen said he differed with his boss on that one but added that Helms's stated objections -- that King was linked to communists, that the holiday cost too much and that individuals should not be granted national holidays -- were legitimate.
Allen's being a black conservative, especially working for someone as racially polarizing as Helms, led some critics to label him a sellout -- or worse.
"What's troubling is that much of it doesn't come from the African American community," Allen said. "It comes from the broader liberal white community that oftentimes has an agenda and ends up using African American leadership to express their views. I don't give a lot of credence to that."
After working for Helms several years, Allen enrolled at Duke Law School. Upon graduation, Allen clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where he developed a close association with Judge Clarence Thomas, a relationship that continued after Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court.
Allen went on to practice law for four years before moving to Virginia, where he worked in the state attorney general's office and as state health and human resources secretary. There, he was known as a staunch conservative, in one case blocking the use of Medicaid funds from going to an impoverished rape victim who wanted an abortion.
He said much of what his critics say about him shortchanges his willingness to listen to others. "I'm much more open-minded than someone would portray in a political process," he said.
In his new post, Allen said he is eager to help shape the president's vision of an "ownership society" that gives people more choices -- but fewer guarantees -- on everything from Social Security checks to health care coverage. Many critics say that independence will likely come at a price: a widening gap between the rich and the poor.
But Allen says that does not have to be the case. Since Bush has taken office, he pointed out, home-ownership rates are up, as are standardized test scores for many elementary school students.
"A broad spectrum of mediocrity, that's not the American dream," Allen said. "The American dream is that an individual in this country should have every opportunity to go from the guttermost to the uppermost."