In the Arena

David Kuo

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My dear, dear friend David Kuo slipped away from us at 10:25 last night—April 5, 2013—after a courageous 10-year struggle against a cancer that was insidious and capricious, coming and going and finally staying. He was 44.

How do I tell you about David? He was the sweetest of God’s creatures, and among the wisest, too. He was a man of faith, rather than of religion. He called himself a Follower of Jesus. Many of his friends had ministries, but David’s church truly had no walls.

I met him about 17 years ago. He was an evangelical conservative in those days—and still was, in the truest sense, as his soul left his body, although political “conservatism” had taken itself to a place of cruelty that David couldn’t really abide. I forget what he was doing when I first met him, either working for the Empower America think tank or for Senator Dan Coats, [Actually, it was John Ashcroft.] maybe both. We met because I was writing about faith-based social programs and David knew where to find the best ones.

We were friends, I think, instantaneously. He was the least self-righteous man of faith I’d ever met. He was, in fact, a hoot. He loved oysters and Martinis. And we were fellow members of a long-suffering tribe: We were Mets fans. At one point, David and I decided to go down to spring training—and golf school!—together. At his insistence, we rented a red convertible. David adored life, and living well. He always reminded me that Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine.

Ahh, Jesus. He was the heart of the matter. We talked about Jesus a lot. We studied Matthew together. David’s fundamental verse was Matthew 25: “when you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.” It was the verse at the heart of the faith-based social programs that David never tired of promoting. He never could get me to cross the divinity bridge—I am a Jew, for chrissake. But Jesus was, too. He was the greatest of the Jewish prophets, a true egalitarian who taught: you don’t need the priests to sacrifice animals for you or intervene on your behalf with God, you can have your own direct relationship with God through prayer and meditation, by helping others, by living simply and carefully—that is, a life full of care.

David was smitten by George W. Bush. He was glowing after their first meeting. “He really gets it,” David said, an assessment I shared—at least when it came to the efficacy of faith-based social programs. But I warned him to be careful: politicians are politicians, they almost always disappoint. And so Bush did: David went to work as John DiIulio’s deputy in the Office of Faith-Based and Social Policy. Both he and DiIulio was disappointed by the politicization of that office. John left frustrated, calling Bush’s advisors “Mayberry Macchiavellis” and David later wrote a sad, searing book about the experience called “Tempting Faith.”

Both John—another dear friend of mine, another genius of kindness—and David gave President Bush a partial exemption. They believed he wanted to do the right thing, that he really cared about the poor, but that he had too many other things to worry about after September 11, 2001, to be fully cognizant of the moral and spiritual failure of the faith-based effort. David was asked to write speeches for Bush’s 2004 campaign and he agreed to write only one, Bush’s speech to the NAACP. He could not bring himself to write speeches about war, or speeches that attacked the Democrats. (Years earlier, at a White House prayer breakfast, he had approached Hillary Clinton after she  offered a moving prayer and said, “I spend my days trying to defeat you and your husband, and sometimes that becomes personal anger, and that is wrong and I will never allow myself to do that again.”)

And then, one evening, driving home from a party, David had a seizure on Rock Creek Parkway. The car veered into oncoming traffic, but somehow his incredible wife, Kim, managed to maneuver onto the opposite verge. That was the tumor announcing its presence in David’s brain—even then offering the hope of survival against all odds, while showing David and Kim the brutal face of death. I cannot say enough about Kim’s courage and support over the last 10 years. She refused to be beaten. She and David had two children (David has two others by a previous marriage). David and Kim were going to live their lives, build a family, despite the cancer. They were going to make this thing disappear—and the cancer cruelly tantalized them. It went away. It actually disappeared once, twice. But it always came back.

I spent Easter Sunday with David in hospice. He couldn’t talk and had difficulty swallowing. We held hands for seven hours. He could understand what I was saying and he would squeeze my hand in response to my recollections of our times together—the red convertible, the Bible study, the times he asked me—a man old enough to be his father—for advice, the times, the many times, he gave me comfort and support and inspiration.

David always closed every conversation by saying, “I love you, Joe Klein.” I think he probably said that as often as my wife has. And so I must close this by saying one last time, “I love you, David Kuo.” And I will always love you, and I will always have your enormous heart and spirit to guide me. And I will miss you, and so will the world, especially the least of these. I love you, David Kuo.