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Misadventures in Compassionate Conservatism By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, November 14, 2000

WELL BEFORE George W. Bush made it his campaign slogan, I fancied myself as something of a compassionate conservative.

It was less a political philosophy than a personal approach to life -- a willingness to help those in need tempered by the prudence to do so wisely. The problem is that generosity and prudence sometimes come into conflict, as I recently learned.

I returned home one night from work to find my wife wide-eyed with concern. She made sure I was sitting down before she gave me the unsettling news.

She had arrived at home a few minutes earlier and was greeted by a ringing telephone.

Collect call from Dave Morris.

She accepted the charges.

"Dave Morris" (I'm using a pseudonym to protect the innocent) is an acquaintance from church. We serve on a parish committee together. I've met him about a half-dozen times. Dave called to report that he was in Redding, about 150 miles north of Sacramento. He had gone there for a funeral, when he was attacked in a parking lot. Someone struck him over the head with a blunt object. When he came to, his possessions, his wallet and his plane ticket were all missing.

Dave had tried calling our mutual friends, but they weren't home, which is why he called us. He needed someone to wire him money for a new plane ticket, and to pick him up at LAX at 9:45 that night.

Before my wife even finished recalling the details, the phone rang.

Collect call from Dave Morris.

I accepted the charges.

Dave was already at the Western Union office, and had directions for how we should send him the cash. We'd use the name of our church group as the secret code word that would let him collect the transfer without his ID, which had been stolen. To avoid confusion with other Western Union offices in the Redding area, we'd wire the money to "Anywhere, CA."

Dave said he needed $269 -- $259 for a new plane ticket, $10 for something to eat. He sounded woozy. We were worried.

We wired $300.

We had a couple of hours between sending the cash and Dave's scheduled arrival at LAX, so we headed over to our church for a meeting. As we walked into the building, we bumped into -- Dave Morris, healthy, happy and a safe 500 miles away from Redding.

We were glad to see that Dave was all right -- and dismayed to discover that we'd been had. It turns out that our needy caller wasn't Dave Morris at all, just someone who had got hold of a church newsletter -- available to the public every Sunday on the parish welcome table. The newsletter lists our names and phone numbers. At least we found out early. It saved us a trip to LAX.

I immediately called Western Union to stop the transfer. Too late. "Dave Morris" had already retrieved the cash in Anywhere, CA., which, of course, could literally be anywhere.

Probably L.A.

I tried putting in a call to the Los Angeles Police Department, and was rewarded with a heavy dose of insult to go with our financial injury. The operator who took my call all but laughed at our gullibility, and then said there was nothing the LAPD could do, at least not at the moment. If we really wanted, we could try bothering the department's financial people the next morning, but she wasn't recommending it.

For an instant I had wished that my wife and I had been a little more conservative and a little less compassionate. At least that was the message I took from the LAPD.

But a broader perspective soon displaced our regret. Our victimization wasn't half as severe as what we thought Dave had been through. In a strange way, compared to what could have been, the revelation that we had been scammed was actually good news.

I like to think that the experience has made us a little wiser, but not cynical. In the future, it would serve us well to remember that compassionate conservatism is a delicate balancing act. Unmoored by reason, compassion can drift into foolishness. Too much defensiveness can easily give way to a cold heart. And sometimes, there's no clear answer, in which case doing what's right is better than doing what's safe.

I'm glad my wife and I erred on the side of generosity instead of caution. Better to get burned than to risk leaving a needy friend stranded. Still, next time, we might want to ask a few more questions before letting our heartstrings pull at our purse strings.

At about 2:30 the following morning, the phone rang. I leaped from bed to pick up the receiver.

Collect call from Dave Morris.

I declined the charges.

Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.

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