Interviewee: Leonard Leo
Current: Executive Vice President, The Federalist Society; Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
In 2004: Catholic Strategist for the Bush-Cheney Campaign; Co-Chair, Catholic Outreach for the Republican National Convention
Interviewer: Dr. Brian Franklin
Associate Director, Center for Presidential History
Southern Methodist University
January 2, 2014
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: All right Mr. Leo, you were also involved specifically in the 2004 election as a Catholic strategist; I’ve seen several terms for that, Catholic strategist or Catholic strategy. How did you come to be involved in that particular role?
LEO: Sure. So, before the reelect had heated up, I was asked to preside over an informal group that used to meet to talk about Catholic issues, and we invited some administration people into that conversation as well. It was called the Catholic working group. Deal Hudson, who was really the architect of a lot of President Bush’s Catholic outreach effort, had sort of stepped away from that role, [01:00] and they needed someone to step in and take over, which I did. I was asked if I would come in and chair the working group, and I did that. And I think part of that was that the White House knew me from a judicial context, and the outside world knew me from what I do with the Federalist Society, and for the conservative movement. So I think everybody was comfortable having me step in late in the game to sort of do Catholic outreach and try to foster a coalition of Catholic leaders around the country. So it started as just helping with the Catholic working group, and then that turned to the actual elective side. [02:00] So I was asked to co-chair RNC Catholic outreach. So I was co-chair of RNC Catholic outreach with Jack Kelly. And it was a nice combination in the sense that Jack was sort of your long-time political hand, been active in the RNC and the regions for years and years, knew politics, knew brass tacks politics, knew the party structure, and then, you know, I was different in the sense that I was more the movement conservative who could galvanize Catholics from more of a philosophical or ideological perspective. So we brought a lot of different skills to the table. And so, summer of — I guess spring and summer of ’04, but mostly summer of ’04, you know, we end up [03:00] coming into the Republican convention, and that’s really my first public appearance as sort of the Catholic advisor to the campaign, and co-chairman of RNC Catholic outreach, was at the convention. And then from there, really trying to build out the second Catholic outreach effort for President Bush. The first one having been built out in ’99 by Deal Hudson and Steve Wagner and some other people who were in Catholic circles for some time.
President Bush had a very unique perspective about Catholics. Every presidential [04:00] standard bearer has to campaign for the Catholic vote, because it’s such a large segment of the American population. But President Bush did it differently, in the sense that he did it based on ideas. See, most candidates prior to George W. Bush went after the Catholic vote appealing to heritage. So it was about being Italian Catholic, Polish Catholic, Irish Catholic. You went to the San Genarro Festival in New York, you had a sausage sandwich, you looked at the statue, you went to your next political event. You went to the St. Patrick’s Day Mass, or the Ancient Order of Hibernians dinner, right? And you did that stuff because it was Catholics showing up. But it was about your heritage as a Catholic. You were a cradle Catholic, or you were — you went to Church on Sundays [05:00] and you were also Italian or Polish or Irish. And that’s how Reagan, you know, campaigned for Catholics. That wasn’t George W. Bush. George W. Bush, number one, recognized that he wasn’t gunning for the whole Catholic vote. He was gunning for faithful Catholics, by which we meant Mass-attending Catholics, attendance at Mass one day a week or more. So number one, it was a different demographic for him. It was faithful Catholics, those were the ones who probably had the philosophical inclinations that were closest to his. And so that’s where he concentrated his efforts. And secondly, it wasn’t about just being Catholic. It was about having ideas that were Catholic, and the president being able to communicate those ideas in a way that sounded quite Catholic. Tough, because the Catholic lingo and language is very different from the evangelical and Protestant lingo and language. [06:00] But the president was able to master it. And so, he knew what issues to address, and he knew how to talk about them. The culture of life being the obvious example. Not abortion, culture of life. A very Catholic term, right? Education reform, right? You know, you talked about school choice, you know? Very important to Catholics. So anyway, he approached Catholics in a very different way. And that made the Catholic outreach effort extraordinarily exciting, because it opened up whole new opportunities and new doors for how you do politics in the space of reaching out to people who are religious.
Q: Well, some of those [07:00] main ideas that you just mentioned, like education or culture of life, how many of those came straight from President Bush and his experience and knowledge, and how many of those came through conversations with you, or with the Catholic working group, or…?
LEO: He had the basics down real well. I mean, it really did come from the heart for him. And we were all very struck by it, because he really did speak our language without a whole lot of prompting. So I do think a fair amount of this did come from his gut, his heart. You know, he understood, for example, that our country was in moral decline, and that there was a crisis in values [08:00] when he was running for office in 1999. He understood that, he saw it, and he understood it. He also understood how to communicate issues with compassion, which is so inextricably entwined with the culture of life, and preserving the dignity and worth of every human person. He understood that in his heart, and so it was easy for him to communicate. So yes, I mean the ideas were there, and I think that’s part of the reason why, for him, resonating with Catholics was about philosophy and ideas, because those things were so close to his heart anyway. So it was natural, it was natural. Now to be sure, that blended with the more political. So, it was also very apparent to Deal Hudson and Karl Rove and Steve Wagner and the people who early on [09:00]were developing the Catholic outreach effort that it was kind of a waste to reach out to — well, of course, there’s Kennedy, who reached out to everyone. But it was kind of a waste to try to message to this whole Catholic population, because the Catholic population is just a mirror of the more general population. It has liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, independents, people who feel lots of different ways about lots of different issues. The Catholic community as a whole is just like America. So the key was, well where can we leverage the Catholic community? Well, it’s going to be on those issues. It’s going to be those people who believe in those ideals that the president embraces. And that’s why he focused on, you know, the culture of life and education reform, and values, decline in values. In 2004, [10:00] culture of life was especially important because he was running against a Catholic who didn’t embrace the culture of life, so this was an important wedge issue. And secondly, the Court became important. I mean, Catholics actually, in a very unique way, have a very keen understanding of the crisis that we were having with the judiciary. But not just because of the abortion issue, but because Catholics understood that there’s something about following rules, and there’s something about humility which are important in human life. And so, when you commun– when the president communicated about the proper role of a judge, and related that back to living by a set of formal rules, demonstrating humility, [11:00] that resonated with Catholic teaching, people who are steeped in Catholic teaching. And so yes, culture of life had something to do with the courts, but it was about more than just that. And so, issues really drove the Catholic outreach effort, both in 2000 and in 2004.