Jun. 02, 2002

Going To The Chapel

Time Magazine

It's fair to say that Wade Horn is not your typical George W. Bush appointee. For one thing, the 47-year-old volunteered for George McGovern and played guitar in a folk-rock ensemble that favored trippy tunes like A Horse with No Name by America. Unlike Rumsfeld or Powell, he's so soft-spoken, you have to lean in to hear him. When he spouts statistics about family-dissolution rates, you wonder how he found himself in the towel-snapping world of W.

Horn may have a gentle mien, but his words roil Washington. He has used his mouthful of a title Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Children and Families to crusade for the government to take a more active role in promoting marriage. Horn believes that sustaining marriages is moral and cost efficient. Nearly three-fourths of children in single-parent families will experience poverty by age 11, vs. about one-fifth of children in two-parent families. Children from intact families are less likely to give birth out of wedlock or get in trouble with the law both of which end up costing the government a bundle.

Horn's first big battle will be over welfare reform, which the President will promote this week. The 1996 reform that ended welfare as an entitlement needs to be renewed this year, and Horn wants to embellish it with $300 million in experimental programs to promote marriage. The money, given in grants, could go to things like family-therapy centers and health clinics that offer courses in parenthood or prewedding counseling.

The notion of government promotion of marriage may seem odd, if not dubious, but the idea has supporters on both the left and the right. In Oklahoma G.O.P. Governor Frank Keating aims to cut the divorce rate one-third within a decade. Indiana's Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, a fan of Horn's, says that marriage promotion is worth a try. "What's the harm?" he asks. For his part, Horn swears he's not out to be the bad cop of matrimony or to trap people in abusive unions. "The money in this bill goes to help people who have decided to get married and want to try to stay married," he says, noting that the middle class has access to marriage counselors while the poor do not.

It's fitting that Horn should end up in the middle of the marriage issue. His career parallels two decades' worth of debate over the meaning of family. As the head of outpatient psychological services at Washington's Children's Hospital in the 1980s, Horn saw the effects of broken homes and absent fathers. The experience pushed him to the right. His wife's becoming pregnant with two girls made him, he says, more sensitive to fetuses and a foe of legal abortion. In the Administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, Horn was a mid-level appointee on family issues. Though the Bush years were marked by Dan Quayle's Murphy Brown speech about the importance of fathers to single-mom families, the government did little to promote marriage.

After the first Bush Administration, Horn decided to take action. He ran the National Fatherhood Initiative, an independent (some say right-leaning) advocacy organization that works to get men to be good parents. While the group received money from conservatives like the Clinton-bashing Scaife Foundation, Horn quietly added his voice to a growing bipartisan consensus among politicians and policymakers for family cohesion. Indeed, though the typical Bush appointee looks at the Clinton era with disgust tempered only by ridicule, Horn is preternaturally bipartisan, even saying he "really, really respect[s] what Al Gore did" with his fatherhood initiative to promote good parenting by men.

For all the bonhomie, Horn has also sparked controversy. At his confirmation hearing he backed away from writings in which he urged the government to give married couples preferences, such as putting them first on the list for public housing. But many on the left remain wary of him. The National Organization for Women opposed his nomination in part because he has written scathingly about no-fault divorce laws.

Beyond the Washington bickering, the question remains: Can the government really help create lasting marriages? No one knows. The few studies that have been done are promising but utterly inconclusive, which is O.K. by Horn. "Government ought not to be paralyzed by a lack of perfect knowledge," he says. "I believe that we ought to not be afraid to change if we're not getting the results we want. If it doesn't work, then we go on to something else." And by that, he doesn't mean divorce.

© 2002 Time Inc.