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How Dickens inspires Bush Jr

WHEN George W Bush, the Governor of Texas, stands today to spell out his aspirations to win the Republican candidacy for president, you may detect a ghost somewhere in the background. For one of the influences on Mr Bush is a bearded figure from 19th century London, regarded in his own time as a radical - Charles Dickens.

Mr Bush's conservative philosophy has been guided in part by Myron Magnet, a social theorist who cut his teeth on Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit and Nicholas Nickleby, not Hayek or Ayn Rand.

So far little interest has been shown in the US in Mr Bush's underlying beliefs. That will start to change after today, when the son of the former president confirms that he will set up a "presidential exploratory committee", the first step on the road that might end in the White House. Ideological inquirers will find that Victorian values, Texas style, are back in vogue.

Mr Magnet is a sort of 1990s version of Samuel Smiles, the British self- help social theorist of the 1860s. Based at the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think-tank, he wrote The Dream and The Nightmare, a work which has figured prominently on Mr Bush's reading list. He has defended and expanded Mr Bush's philosophy of "compassionate conservatism".

The core of Mr Magnet's beliefs, honed through his earlier work as a literary academic on Dickens and social order, is an emphasis on society as a whole, as opposed to groups within it or individuals. Dickens showed, he argues, that "we need society because man is inherently aggressive". And just as Dickens rejected the individualistic theories of Manchester liberalism as too uncaring, he rejects modern American liberalism as too ready to ignore social obligation and responsibility.

But he also criticises the right. "If you are a politician, you need to be thinking about the condition of society and the condition of poverty, which is not something that Republicans at the national level have thought about much for a long time," says Mr Magnet. Culture, values and social cohesion matter.

Like many Republicans, Mr Bush is an ardent free trader; he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and where the health of the mother is in danger. But he is primarily a cultural conservative: the interplay of social choices and values is what interests him. "We need a spiritual revival in America," he says. He talks about national purpose and optimism, not "culture wars" like the religious right. He speaks about people's obligations, and about the obligations that society has to its members, rather than individual freedoms, like the economic right. He is in some ways an old-fashioned Tory.

And compassionate though he may be, he is undoubtedly very conservative. Like many state governors, he has replaced welfare with workfare. But he has also mounted a campaign to try to reduce illegitimacy, by establishing residential hostels for single mothers - "homes for fallen women", as Mr Magnet puts it. And he has put a stress on education, encouraging "back to basics" teaching, independent schools and reading skills. Like Mr Magnet, Mr Bush blames the 1960s for many of America's ills, and has set out to reverse them.

A critic might say this is all a bit too Dickensian: that modern-day Texas is cramming its massive prison system with all of its social problems and carries out a third of all US executions. The shelters for single mothers look a little like poorhouses, and Mr Bush has also proposed to cut off additional benefits for women who get pregnant while on welfare.

But clearly, these policies resonate, at least in Texas: Mr Bush was re-elected governor by a landslide last year. And significantly, he came to Mr Magnet's work through Karl Rove, the political strategist who is the eminence grise behind the governor's campaign.

Reclaiming the idea that government can be good from the Democrats is a smart idea electorally. The Republicans have started to sound as if they actively oppose all government, even their own. His allusions to national purpose and optimism contrasts with the religious right, which often seems antagonistic, exclusionary and doom-laden. Mr Bush talks about being on the "sunshine side of the mountain", not the road to hell.

Mr Rove, Mr Bush and Mr Magnet evidently believe there is common ground between the economic and religious wings of the Republican Party, and with the broader electorate, in the idea of reclaiming social values. "The Republican Party... has got to reject... the pessimism and the divisive rhetoric that says we're going to pit race against race, class against class," Mr Rove said earlier this year. And the opinion polls so far say that he is right. A little bit of Dickens might just help win the election in 2000.