Even before he was elected president, George W. Bush was criticized for being weak in what his father once dismissed as "the vision thing" -- an overall philosophy of government comparable to the conservative ideological rigor of Ronald Reagan or the liberal chameleonism of Bill Clinton.

We know the president wants a tax cut and better schools, but how do we further define the "compassionate conservatism" he embraces so earnestly, if fuzzily?

The improbable answer to that question is now before us, a bespectacled fellow with the moon-faced amiability and mutton chop whiskers of a character out of Dickens. Maybe Mr. Pickwick. Which he sort of is.

His name is Myron Magnet. Eight years ago he published a book called "The Dream and the Nightmare," which George W. Bush has called the most influential book -- aside from the Bible -- that he's ever read.

The new president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, has declared "The Dream and the Nightmare" a "road map" to Bush's attitudes on the role of government.

Magnet, 56, has also written columns defining compassionate conservatism for the Wall Street Journal and for City Journal, the provocative urban policy magazine he edits for the neoconservative Manhattan Institute.

Hadn't we better check this guy out?

"I'm really not a political junkie," the guru protests gently. "I promise you, I do not go right home and turn on the news. It's the ideas that interest me."

If the chattering classes on CNN and MSNBC haven't yet discovered him, it may be because Myron Magnet is steeped more in literature and philosophy than political science, believes culture far more significant than politics, and has no hunger for a White House appointment or a gig as a talking head.

"I'm quite happy where I am, editing City Journal," he says beatifically from his small office across from Grand Central Terminal. "I treasure the spirited discourse over what constitutes a livable society and how we might achieve it."

That debate, he says, is an intellectual process underway at least since Plato. "Compassionate conservatism" is simply its latest offspring.

Magnet says the heart of compassionate conservatism is recognizing, as liberals do, that government has a responsibility for the disadvantaged. But he says genuine concern for ending urban poverty today calls for recognition that 35 years of federal government programs founded with everyone's best intentions have not only failed to do so but have made many things worse.

The United States has always had poverty, he notes, but in cities with available jobs it's been largely a transitional state: People have moved in and out of it as their fortunes have waxed or waned.

"What we haven't had until the past 30 years or so is a hard-core urban underclass that for generation after generation can't seem to get out of poverty" -- can't break the cycle despite economic booms, job availability, job training programs, social worker interventions, educational incentives and a host of other federal, state and local programs.

Those programs fail, Magnet argues, because government policymakers fail to understand that the poverty of the underclass is less an economic matter than a cultural one.

The poorest of the poor, he says, "lack the inner resources to seize their chance, and they pass on to their children a self-defeating set of values and attitudes, along with an impoverished intellectual and emotional development, that generally imprisons them in failure as well."

Couldn't that be a product of racism and social injustice?

If it were only that, or lack of economic opportunity, he argues, how is it that every index of urban poverty and social breakdown grew worse between 1960 and 1990, even as the nation was growing inarguably more prosperous and more free?

Magnet's answer: The cultural revolution born of the feel-good 1960s sold the Have-Nots a code of values that breeds hopelessness, defeatism and socially destructive lifestyles.

Those values -- individual self-gratification, non-accountability and rejection of the work ethic among them -- were inadvertently "handed down" by "white elites . . . seeking bliss" during the '60s and have been aggressively popularized by the media ever since. Corrosive even to those secure in the middle class, he says, those values proved "calamitous" for those on society's margins who adopted them and, by extension, for the nation's cities in which they acted them out.

The new culture "withdrew respect from the behavior and attitudes that have traditionally boosted people up the economic ladder," Magnet says, and held the poor back "by robbing them of responsibility for their fate . . . [by] telling them they were victims of an unjust society."

However unfashionable Hollywood finds such rarely dramatized but socially constructive values as optimism, industry, sobriety and family cohesiveness, they are proven keys to the underclass escape hatch, Magnet says. For both its own health and that of the disadvantaged, society needs to broadcast that news repeatedly by every avenue it has.

In other words, he's asking for a total transformation of America's popular culture?

Who is this guy?

Nurturing Optimism If Magnet's analysis sounds like simplistic "blame the victim" politics, it is anything but. He does not claim that racism is not a problem or that justice is always perfect or that life is always fair. He does not claim that a different message from the top is all that's needed to cure poverty. But he does see the cultural message as the crucial step.

Other policies can help, he says -- including "value laden" schools, "workfare" and social services that emphasize self-help. And city governments can help with closer policing of poor neighborhoods, so the responsible poor -- not the drug dealers -- control them, and by nurturing optimism and self-respect by keeping streets clean and alleys free of graffiti and broken windows.

"Government can't save anyone," he says, "but it can nurture a physical and social environment in which people discover they can save themselves. That sort of nurturing should be our foremost political task."

The proof that such policies work, he says, lies most visibly in the recent turnaround in New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's policies reclaiming the city from the abyss of near-bankruptcy and urban crime have focused on a cultural turnaround on the streets.

But Magnet says it's difficult to get liberals to engage in constructive debate on the cultural causality of social problems.

"For most of my life in New York, any such analysis as I propose has been considered simply beyond the pale. Even by me," he says. "It was understood that poor people couldn't help themselves. That they had a right to welfare. And if they occasionally robbed a store or held somebody up, well, what could you expect, given how society was stacked against them? To question those assumptions was worse than illiberal. It branded you as heartless, and probably bigoted besides."

Giuliani, who says he often has drawn on Magnet's "searching" writings, goes further: A "tyranny of political correctness rules intellectual life" in New York, he says. "It's like the Spanish Inquisition."

If things are a little better today, the mayor says, it's due in no small part to Magnet, who confesses his own retreat from traditional liberal assumptions was tardy, reluctant and prolonged.

The son of an ear, nose and throat doctor and a "typical 1950s housewife," he grew up in Fall River, Mass., with only the vaguest sort of social consciousness. His grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and "I was the beneficiary of the American dream."

At Columbia University he fell in love with English literature and, under the spell of critic Lionel Trilling, pursued that love for two years at Cambridge University in the mid-'60s, "when there were still pockets of the Victorian world alive. . . . I would putt-putt around the British countryside in my car and . . . end up in these tiny villages. . . . I remember driving along and watching them burn the stubble off the fields and feeling like I was in the middle of some Constable painting. I loved that. It was the England of English literature still glimpsable."

Lost in his books, he says, he was largely oblivious to the revolutionary tremors shaking universities elsewhere, and returned to Columbia in 1968 astounded to hear his friends speaking of "Amerika" as a fascist country and imagining plots against them everywhere.

"Suddenly everything was political," he remembers. It was right after the bloody murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers, "and one thing that stuck in my head was Bernardine Dohrn of the Weathermen saying, 'Offing the pigs with their own knives and forks. Far out! The Weathermen dig the Manson family.'

"And I said to myself, 'This is politics? These people are all crazy!' "

Until then, he said, his political awareness was "very vague. . . . I believed very deeply in the civil rights movement from the start. I believed then and I believe still that there was a big scar on America because of its shameful treatment of blacks. But beyond that I just sort of imbibed the prevailing leftism: Welfare was a good thing. Expanding it was a good thing. America was a bad country for reasons I couldn't quite understand. . . .

"One of the things I came to realize in those years is that a lot of people have political attitudes rather than political beliefs. I certainly did. There are fashions in political attitudes that are not often examined."

Magnet began to examine his, he says, during the 1970s as the New York City he loved sank further into decay. For most of the decade he was teaching at Columbia and so lost in books "I rarely went below 103rd Street."

But "the literary tradition is a great liberal education," he says, because "literature is about individual lives. . . . The stories by which you make sense of your life are primary. It's what makes you human."

The English department at Columbia, on the other hand, was embarking on a slightly different tack: the notion that literature existed to critique society. "They were radicalizing Dickens, for example, saying if you want to understand where the trouble comes from in his novels, it's the social arrangements that produce a child pickpocket like Oliver Twist."

Deciding to "take all this on" with a doctoral thesis on "Charles Dickens and the Social Order," Magnet began reading Sigmund Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents." The book, one of the last written by the father of psychoanalysis, explores the inevitable conflict between the aggressive, egotistical instincts of man and the civilizing force of culture that inhibits them.

"That had a profound effect on me, far more than I realized at the time," he says. Marx and other fashionable 20th-century theorists hold that human nature is little more than a reflection of large economic and social forces, and all culture is political. Change those economic forces with economic policies, that logic goes, and people will behave differently.

But Freud says human nature is not that sort of blank slate. It's a witch's brew of primal urges and needs all sorts of social conditioning to control it. Or society goes down the tubes.

The failure of government anti-poverty programs in New York and the rest of the country, Magnet said, seemed to validate Freud far more than Marx. "So all these things I had taken on faith I decided it was time to examine. I started with Hobbes and read my way back to Plato and forward to Rousseau. I just got swept away by political theory."

When he finished his thesis, a colleague "said, 'You know, this is a deeply conservative work.' And I said, 'What? Conservative? Me?' "

Reversing Social Decay Magnet's colleagues at Columbia realized before he did how out of step he was with the political thinking in the university. He was elected to Columbia's prestigious Society of Fellows, but any prospect of gaining tenure became less and less likely, so in 1980 he followed his fascination with political theory to Fortune magazine. There he specialized in urban problems and, in the late 1980s, wrote a series of articles on poverty and social policy that evolved into "The Dream and the Nightmare" in 1993.

Reviews in conservative publications were rhapsodic ("a cogency and passion unequaled," said the New Criterion). Other media either ignored or savaged it ("accusatory, wrongheaded and historically blind," said Nick Kotz in The Washington Post's Book World). It has sold about 20,000 copies total.

Magnet said he eventually came to accept his identification as a conservative ("and worse, a Republican!") because "I found those on the right the only ones willing to address cultural issues."

George W. Bush read "The Dream and the Nightmare" in 1998 while preparing to run for his second term as governor of Texas. He promptly invited Magnet down to Austin for a brainstorming session with his cabinet.

The visit lasted two days, during which Magnet suggested, among other things, providing communal homes for unwed mothers instead of welfare grants. The homes would be run by church or charity groups, and the whole point would be to provide aid in the form of a "value laden" community where the mother could get a fresh start less likely to lead her down the same path.

Bush started such a program immediately, Magnet says. "I've been meaning to go down there and see how the homes are coming along."

Since then he served "on some informal campaign policy groups" and was pleased to see a paragraph or two from "The Dream and the Nightmare" about the cultural causes of social problems make their way into almost every Bush speech during the presidential campaign.

"I would never say we were close or that I'm any kind of insider," Magnet says. "But we send each other little notes from time to time."

Magnet says he found Bush "very quick, very intelligent and focused, but I told him at that first meeting that there was one thing he should understand if he decided to run for president. I said if you talk about cultural issues, you have to be ready for the elite press and the New York Times in particular to call you an [bodily orifice]. They won't say they disagree with your ideas. They won't even engage your ideas. They'll just say you're a moron and a rube . . . beneath contempt. And of course, that's just what happened to Bush in the campaign."

Magnet says Bush believes, as he himself does, that the foremost index of social decay has been the enormous growth of teen pregnancy and illegitimacy. Conservatives, he says, have tended to blame the phenomenon on social programs they claim "subsidize" illegitimacy by providing unwed mothers another welfare payment for each child. But Magnet says money is not the crucial factor. The Aid for Dependent Children program dates back to the New Deal, yet illegitimacy has become a major national problem only since the '60s.

"What changed? The culture changed," he says. "The stigma came off" even as the birth control pill was becoming available. "How can you expect an unmarried teenager today to avoid pregnancy, much less premarital sex, when the role models they see on television -- from rock stars to Jesse Jackson -- are practically bragging about the children they have out of wedlock?"

Somehow, he says, society has to restigmatize illegitimacy: not by punishing teens who make a mistake, and certainly not by shaming their children, but to nurture a society that enforces paternal responsibility and nourishes family strength.

But isn't the genie out of the bottle now? Isn't it hopelessly unrealistic to think we can transform by sheer will a popular culture as commercial and pervasive as ours? Don't cultures have a life of their own?

Well, they do, Magnet says, but the cause is far from hopeless. In the 1870s, he notes, the Irish in New York wallowed in a behavioral sink of drunkenness, brawling and illegitimacy that was the despair of the city. "But the Catholic archbishop of New York, Archbishop Hughes, decided it was his job to foster the values that would help his flock succeed. Within a generation the Irish underclass was tiny: The majority were on their way up."

A similar transformation occurred earlier in Victorian England: "In a single generation an elite of writers, social reformers, philanthropists and clergymen -- backed by an exemplary head of state -- turned a gin-swilling nation addicted to cockfights," illegitimacy and squalor "into a law-abiding, sober, upright country with strong families and . . . prosperity widely diffused among the population."

But they didn't have television and the Internet. Can we still do that today?

"We can, and in some ways it's easier," he says. "Just look at the social stigma against smoking and how quickly that turned around."

But the real cause for his optimism, he says, is "a certain reality of human nature." There is, he says, a self-correcting force in society. "People may think for a while that fathers and stable families aren't so important and illegitimacy is not an issue, but when kids start bringing guns to school and spraying bullets around and killing people, they start saying, hey, maybe families are important after all."

It's already happening, Magnet says. Look at plummeting rates of violent crime and teenage drug use, and the increased livability of big cities like New York. "Changes beginning to flow within our own culture," he writes in the introduction to a new edition of "The Dream and the Nightmare," offer "more signs for a larger renewal than we've seen in decades."

"Government can't save anyone," says Myron Magnet, but it can nurture a "social environment in which people discover they can save themselves."Myron Magnet's "The Dream and the Nightmare" has swayed President Bush's thinking on social issues.