The sensitive conservative. An oxymoron to most liberals. An eye-averting embarrassment to many conservatives. And, it would seem in 1994, an irrelevancy. Who needs sensitive conservatives when Democrats in power can assure tolerance and sensitivity? All in all, it’s a dubious time to be a touchy-feely man of the right. Just my luck.

Actually, I never expected to be labeled the touchy-feely type, no matter the era. Looking back, I can see there were warning signs in college. A co-ed friend once remarked that I was “the only nice Republican” she had ever met. Yeah, right. But my guffaws died in my throat when I noticed her laughing eyes weren’t. She was serious. I tried to shrug off the comment, but only weeks later another companion told me, “I don’t see you as a conservative,” in the same tone one tells a dieting friend, “You’re not fat.” I was worried.

Where had I gone wrong? My parents were charter subscribers to National Review. Every Christmas I had asked for and received from Santa a new toy gun. And in the fifth grade, I spread word that any classmate who went trick-or-treating for UNICEF was a fellow traveler. And now I was a “nice Republican.”

After graduation, I headed for Ronald Reagan’s Washington, a shaky pilgrim in search of spiritual renewal. With luck I managed to get a job at the White House, as a writer in the Office of Presidential Messages. My actual office was on the ground floor of the Old Executive Office Building next door. Sure I was a peon, but a conservative Republican peon. I felt good. A certain equilibrium returned. I started wearing fur.

Things were going well. I read the Washington Times faithfully, bought my first yellow power-tie, and occasionally meandered across 17th Street to the then-fashionable Maison Blanche for drinks. I was drafting letters on crime, the drug problem, aid to the Contras. I even walked into a fund-raiser at the same time as Fawn Hall feeling the proximate celebrity glow of a thousand flashbulbs in my face.

Still, there were signs. One morning sitting in on the usual office bull session, I casually asked if anyone had caught “that fascinating Bill Moyers program on PBS last night.” Scorn was heaped, suspicions were raised. Soon, I began noticing my assignments were littered with terms like safety net and SSI while my colleague, an ex-hippie who now looked like the cover boy for Today’s Accountant, wrote about Star Wars and ICBMs.

I tried to compensate. I attended Heritage Foundation briefers, even snoozers like “Harvest of Shame—the Shocking Truth About Farm Supports.” I left a dog-eared copy of Republican Reptile sprawled across mv desk. I rented Chuck Norris videos. I spit a lot.

Yet the gang still seemed wary of me. The clincher came when Lisa, our Queen of the Sob Story, had to fake maternity leave. Lisa handled correspondence involving personal tragedy, and she could craft replies that would wring tears out of a bank examiner. Replacing her was Topic A at our morning staff meeting, but who? Mr. ICBM massaged his freshly shaven chin, eyed me unblinkingly, made a grimace, and said simply, “Paul . . . he’s good at that stuff,” I glanced around. Now all my colleagues were massaging their chins and grimacing, their heads slowly nodding. Yeah, they were thinking, Paul’s good at that stuff. He’s good at . . . pap.

The boss mumbled something about taking my time to consider, but I knew there was only one answer—I became King of the Sob Story. And with it went any hope of overcoming my rep—I was now a full-blown sensitive kinda guy.

For awhile I tried to make the best of it, churning out sympathetic yet sober replies—adding the compassionate touch, while holding fast to conservative principles: “While the President is sympathetic to your predicament, Mr. Jones, he is unable to grant a stay of your execution until after the winning Super Duper Jackpot Lotto number is announced. Sorry, would if he could. Take it easy.”

I tried. But something gnawed inside me. Was I really making the best use of my talents—cranking out messages in the bowels of the White House? With all my compassion and sensitivity (I was beyond denying it now), maybe, just maybe, I could become . . . a talk-show host. Or a psychotherapist. Whichever seemed easier. And heck, with my angle I could probably be a therapist on a talk show. “He’s conservative, he’s Republican, and he could he counseling your children. Right-wing psychotherapist—the next Geraldo.”

I began applying to clinical psychology programs. I had no background in the field, but I was full of compassion and had seen every episode of the Bob Newhart Show at least twice, a fact I didn’t fail to mention on my application forms. Something worked, because a couple of schools actually invited me for an interview.

One was a large Southern state university. Sitting in the school’s psychology department lounge with my fellow invited applicants, I was nervous. We had made the first cut, but after these interviews only half of us would be invited back. The faculty strolled in and took their places. This was intended to be a friendly warm-up session, before the more grueling individual interviews took place. We applicants took turns introducing ourselves. After I did so, a professor interrupted, “Are you the fellow who works at the White House?” “Yes, I am,” I said, hastily turning to the next applicant, hoping she would begin.

“Does that mean you’re a Republican?” asked a female professor. (I checked the scene on mv mind’s VCR: she, head cocked to the side, staring smugly, awaiting my answer—I, leaning forward, inches from her face, suddenly screaming, “NO, LADY, IT MEANS I’M A FASCIST!” Click! I hit the fast-forward button just in time.) “Yes it does.” I said, laughing amiably.

Scanning the room, I noticed no one else was laughing. Just a few polite, nervous smiles. “Am I the only Republican in this room?” Silence. Then an older professor came to my rescue, “On, no, no—we have Republicans here, and I think you’ll . . . ” “Are you Republican, Jack?” someone shouted at my rescuer. “No, no, no!!!” said Professor Jack with the alacrity of one wrongly caught in the guillotine. No further rescue was attempted. I started to ask about membership requirements for the local country club, but no one seemed to know.

Retreating north, I ended up attending a small school in Pennsylvania. The town had a statue of Jimmy Stewart in the courthouse square, so I figured the place couldn’t be all bad. Even still, I tried to keep a low profile. When fellow students asked about mv prior experience, I blandly replied that I “had worked in Washington for the government.” A nice phrase that had a way of making eyes glaze over with visions of me toiling over form 1047-C in some windowless, fluorescent-lit bureaucratic bunker. People rarely inquired further.

On the first day of class, I learned that a number of people in the program practiced Buddhist meditation and would welcome any newcomers to their Wednesday night meetings. On the second day, I learned that we would be making a weekend retreat for a hypnosis seminar. And by the end of the week, I almost got into a fight over abortion with my new best friend, a liberal Jewish classmate from Long Island. Being a conservative psychology student was going to be no day at the Coors Brewery.

In the days ahead, I glumly wandered down departmental hallways, noting the faculty office doors decorated with the usual Doonesbury cartoons, anti-Bush bumper stickers, and announcements for Womyn Faculty Empowerment meetings. Once, my heart skipped a beat when I spotted a “Support the NRA” sign on one door. It turned out to be the door to the janitor’s room. Fine. He and I became buddies. He would tell me deer-hunting stories, and I didn’t call him names.

Being a practicing Catholic didn’t help either. Ever since Freud, Catholicism, with its in-our-face moral absolutes, has been high on the list of psychotherapy’s demons—right up there with cold, domineering mothers. The field is full of “recovering Catholics ” saved from the damnation of eternal Catholic guilt by a baptism of the couch.

Not yet savvy to this fact, I innocently noted that I’d be a little late for a departmental function because I had to go to Mass first. “I didn’t know you were a bead squeezer,” a classmate remarked, “I used to be one, too.” Hmmm, bead squeezer—hadn’t heard that one. Mackerel snapper, yes, but bead squeezer was a new one.

Again, I tried to fit in. In a clinical psych program, everybody stares a lot. Long, soul-searching stares, like in the movies. Stares that let you know I’ve been there. Or I am there. Or at least, I’ll be there. And I did mv best to return those oh-so-sympathetic lingering stares, glistening in empathic recognition, with my own gee-whiz stares of grateful acknowledgment—this whether the topic be the breakup with my girlfriend or the breakdown of my car.

I tried. Mv colleagues tried. But Lord knows it was tough for them to get past the bead-squeezing, woman-oppressing, right-winging, Neanderthal facade and see the real me. Just like those White House clods, only different. I suppose I should be grateful that the program let me stay in. They did their best to shape me into a bona fide therapist. And I can spot a dysfunctional sibling triangulation with the best of them.

Yet somehow I never did fit in And today? Well, the life of a sensitive conservative is never easy. Sure you could end up being the object of some pretty young liberal thing’s missionary infatuation (“such a nice guy—he just needs a little straightening out”). On the other hand, you could wind up making ends meet as a psychotherapist in a nonprofit counseling agency in the Bronx. Like me. So let that be a lesson to you empathetic Young Republicans. Curb those moments of sentiment. In the words of P.T. Foz “The Tin Man should have left well enough alone.”