By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
BALTIMORE, Jan. 29 -- President Bush plopped himself into a chair between two former prisoners, Thomas Boyd and Adolphus Moseley, and asked to hear how their lives had changed. But first, he wanted them to know something about him: "I understand addiction," he said, "and I understand how a changed heart can help you deal with addiction."
The scene inside a tiny room in an East Baltimore rowhouse Tuesday was part of an unusual day for the president, who referred repeatedly to his struggle with alcohol as a way of connecting with the participants in Jericho, a church-run program that helps former inmates find jobs and reenter society.
"Addiction is hard to overcome," Bush told reporters after meeting with Boyd and Moseley, both of whom told the president they had struggled with drugs. "As you might remember, I drank too much at one time in my life. I understand faith-based programs. I understand that sometimes you can find the inspiration from a higher power to solve an addiction problem."
Bush, who was here to celebrate the seventh anniversary of his program to funnel federal funds to "faith-based" social service organizations, has occasionally talked over the years about his struggles with alcohol before he quit in 1986 after waking up with a hangover from celebrating his 40th birthday.
But recent encounters with those facing drug or alcohol addiction appear to have touched a chord with the president. At a news briefing last month on youth drug abuse, Bush told one teenage girl struggling with addiction that he, too, had kicked a habit.
During his State of the Union address Monday night, Bush asked Congress to write into law rules that make it possible for religious-sponsored groups to compete on an even playing field for federal grants. The subject received only a brief mention, but it was a sign of the president's interest in the program that he made it the focus of his first day of travel to highlight his State of the Union themes.
The faith-based program, a key element of the original Bush domestic agenda, has been the subject of controversy over the years, with criticism that funding has been inadequate and dominated by large national organizations rather than the smaller church groups envisioned by the White House. The administration says it is funding about 5,000 grass-roots charities through the program.
The part of the program that Bush was highlighting Tuesday was a prisoner reentry initiative aimed at preventing former inmates from falling back into a life of crime. The Jericho program is run by Episcopal Community Services of Maryland with funding from the Labor Department. It serves about 200 male ex-offenders a year with job placement, counseling and mentoring help; the program maintains that 22 percent of its graduates return to prison, less than half the average Baltimore recidivism rate.
As Bush received a tour of the facility Tuesday, he was in high spirits, mugging for the cameras, querying participants about their lives and speaking of his faith in a "higher power." The White House allowed a reporter to sit in on a 20-minute meeting Bush had with Boyd, a security guard, and Moseley, who works at a warehouse after graduating from the Jericho program.
"Why were you in jail, if you don't mind me asking?" Bush asked Moseley, a gregarious 42-year-old who replied that he served time for cocaine possession. "It's just one of those things that you need to put behind you," he told the president.
Moseley told Bush they could use more such mentoring and counseling programs on the west side of Baltimore, and Bush replied: "There are programs like that all over the city; they are called churches."
"They are not sincere, like Jericho," Moseley replied, seeming to take Bush a bit aback.
"My only point to you is there are a lot of faith-based organizations that exist to help deal with very difficult problems," Bush said. "It starts with the notion that there is a higher power that will help people change their thinking.
"It's very important for everybody to understand that there is a commonality, that we all have to deal with the same problems in different ways," Bush said. "First is to recognize that there is a higher power. At least that helped in my life -- it helped me quit drinking."
Moseley interjected, "That's right, there is a higher power."
"Step One, right?" Bush said, alluding to Alcoholics Anonymous's second step.
The president tried to relate to Boyd and Moseley in other ways, too. Moseley talked about how he was worried "to death" about his daughters when he was in prison, and Bush interjected, "You can be worried when you are incarcerated, and you can be worried when you are not incarcerated," drawing laughter.
He asked Moseley how old his daughters are, and when told 17, 15 and 13, Bush said, "Hooo, man!"
"Girls love their dad, especially a redeemed dad," Bush said.
After Bush departed the facility, Jean Patterson Cushman, executive director of Episcopal Community Services, said the people who met Bush Tuesday found the president inspiring: "They were kind of amazed that the president would talk to them about his own problems," she said.