Bill Bennett’s Moral Crusade: America’s Culture Czar

William Bennett sits at his desk at the Hudson Institute amid a pile of papers, an American flag, and a half-full can of diet coke. Behind him stands a bronze elephant, its hind legs firmly in a fighting stance, its forelimbs jabbing.

This nation is in crisis, Bennett says. Liberal elites are pitted against traditionalists in open warfare. At stake are our culture and our children. For him, politics is more than conflicting opinions about practical solutions to society’s ills. “Politics is a struggle of fighting faiths,” he writes.

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, U.S. Secretary of Education, and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Bennett developed strategies in defense of the American family and Western culture and in opposition to cultural relativism and permissiveness. Now he has written a book, The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children, which records the battles he fought while in the front line of American politics. The book explains his philosophy, his politics, and his particular tactics in his self-proclaimed fight to “reclaim our institutions, and our culture.”

One of two main strategies is “to break through the veneer of public policy or policy analysis and get down to the heart of the matter, which is the matter of right and wrong.” The other is to become directly involved with the people affected by the policy and “stimulate a true national discussion of the most consequential issues of our time.”

As Secretary of Education, Bennett visited elementary schools, secondary schools, and colleges and documented the deplorable condition of many of them. Bennett attacked the National Education Association (NEA) and other powerful education lobbies for veering so far from the common sense approach to education favored by most teachers and parents, and for doing so little to improve the education of our children. Bennett restated the arguments for “back to basics” courses in grammar schools and secondary schools and for the traditional core curriculum in U.S. colleges. Without that core, he said, we have no standards and no guarantee that students will learn about Western civilization, about who we are as a nation and what tradition engendered us.

“To cultivate the mind is not enough. Students need the institution’s attention to their moral well-being,” Bennett says. In every school where children achieve high standards, he adds, teachers are principled and not afraid to admit it. They are driven by love more than self-preservation. The children learn from such teachers the virtues and rewards of hard work, self-discipline, and good behavior. At schools run by principals like Joe Clark of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey—who does not tolerate knives, guns, or drugs—pupils are safer, happier, smarter. By contrast, Bennett said in a public address, Harvard fails to educate students in ethics or to expect a minimum ethical standard in student behavior, even concerning illegal drugs.

An increase in government funding of schools is not the answer to these problems, Bennett argues. Many public schools have high standardized test scores, no drug problem, and a low incidence of crime, even though their teachers are poorly paid and the schools receive little federal money. Success depends on “local people, leadership, community commitment, and shared values, not federal tutelage or federal dollars alone.” When the NEA and the American Association of School Administrators criticized him for his views, Bennett said, “I do not work for the education establishment, I work for the American people.”

Bennett supports a voucher system to increase parental choice in education and to create competition between schools. That system gives parents more control over what their children are taught and how they are taught. The competition forces schools to shape up or shut down for lack of enrollment.

As drug czar, Bennett ignored libertarian theorizing and fought the legalization of drugs. Crime rates are highest where crack is cheapest, he points out, and parents who take drugs are most likely to abuse their children. In countries where drugs have been legalized, such problems have not disappeared but become much worse. Once again Bennett looks to the moral sense of the American people, who report in polls that drugs are the number-one problem in America. He quotes James Q. Wilson: “Drug use is wrong because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul.” The best drug treatment programs, Bennett believes, nourish the soul by offering a sense of community and a sense of family. The national drug strategy created by Bennett and his colleagues proposed a combination of “interdiction, treatment, education, prevention, and law enforcement,” in contrast to the laissez-faire attitude toward drugs inherited from the 1960s. “Most will not see the light until they see the law,” Bennett writes. Some of his allies in his fight to cut federal funding of education opposed his fight to increase federal funding for the war on drugs. Congress, on the other hand, fought cuts in education, but supported increased outlays to combat the drug problem.

Bennett’s style has attracted many labels like “Knight of the Right,” “a bully with a pulpit,” “a loose cannon,” “a Neanderthal,” “secretary of private education,” “secretary smarty pants,” “secretary of religion,” “heaven sent to silence the heathen,” “propagandist and ideological gangster,” “philosopher and tough Irish cop,” and “the Cabinet’s resident Dennis the Menace.” Bennett admits that he has higher goals than making friends.

Indisputably an intellectual, with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas and a law degree from Harvard, he has nonetheless been attacked by academics as anti-intellectual. A convert to Republicanism, he is also denounced by paleoconservatives and libertarians as well as the left. A ferocious polemicist, he speaks from a conscience formed largely by the Catholic Church.

He early learned the primacy of practical reason (in Kant’s phrase) from his mother, his grandmother, and the church. Although his own parents divorced early in his childhood, he strongly supports the nuclear family. He says of his own experience as a father, “I remember thinking, How could God love me? Having done the things I’ve done, surely He must be disappointed and mad at me. But then you have children and you understand. You love them. It’s unqualified and unconditional. You want them to be their best and you get angry at them, but the love never stops.” He spends a lot of time with John and Joe, his two sons, playing soccer, basketball, and touch football.

Bennett brings to public life the Judeo-Christian tradition that touched his personal life so deeply. In a speech to the Knights of Columbus in 1985, he spoke of the relationship between political and social order to religious belief:

The fate of our democracy is intimately intertwined with the vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition is not a source of fear in the world; it is a ground of hope. No one demands doctrinal adherence to any religious beliefs as a condition of citizenship, or as proof of good citizenship, here. But at the same time, we should not deny what is true: that from the Judeo-Christian tradition come our values, our principles, the animating spirit of our institutions. That tradition and our tradition are entangled. They are wed together. When we have disdain for our religious tradition, we have disdain for ourselves.

While an undergraduate at Williams College, Bennett encountered the dialogues of Plato, which deepened his appreciation of Western tradition. They “changed my life,” he says. “The notion that you could enter into dialogue, discussion, conversation and as a result change your views and, indeed, your life… was to me the wonder of philosophy.”

In his several government posts, Bennett fought hard for recognition of such principles, the truths which he believes are universal. If dialogue succeeds, the discussant recognizes that by developing character, loyalty, and the other classical virtues one is endowed with a sense of purpose and with self-confidence. This in turn promotes right action.

Has Bennett persuaded members of Congress and others who did not accept these principles as the solution to society’s maladies? “In some ways,” answers Bennett. Each time he went to the Hill on the drug issue, he reiterated that “drug use is wrong because it destroys human character.” Most of them listened; some were swayed.

Critics say that his emphasis on interdiction and law enforcement reveals him as a heartless ideologue who would sacrifice real persons to abstract principles. Like the principal Joe Clark, they say, he lacks compassion for members of society who, criminal or not, need love and understanding and a second chance rather than expulsion from school.

But Bennett’s approach arises from what he learned as a boy and a man: that virtue, which makes life worth living, lies in “working hard and playing hard.” Happiness “is an elusive thing,” he says. “Robertson Davies, the novelist, says happiness is like a cat. Chase it and it runs away. But do other things—like work, meet your responsibilities, attend to your faith, take time with your family—and happiness will jump right into your lap.” This message can still be given to youth today, he argues, even though so many of them are far removed from either virtue or happiness. He advocates Aristotle’s method of teaching by “rule, precept, and example.”

Bennett sees one major obstacle to people’s appreciation of the need for virtue. “They like to reduce complex problems to things they can get their hands on like particular policies, or laws, or acts of legislation, or numbers. The most important questions are not those, but are about how we live together and the kinds of values that inform us.” What is the solution to people’s uneasy approach to ethical discourse? “Enter into dialogue in the hope and expectation that people will arrive at the truth” once they become used to thinking about such questions. Bennett believes this Socratic method will ultimately work, since the majority of Americans are of sound mind and moral character.

The liberal elite described in Bennett’s book, however, are unlikely to adapt such principles. Why, if the value of virtue and honest inquiry is self-evident? Bennett says that members of this elite close their minds and disengage themselves from any truth-seeking dialogue. (They, of course, have said much the same about him.) Not investigation, but the hope of compelling assent to a predetermined ideological perspective is their desire. What’s fascinating about the left, in Bennett’s view, is “not that they are wrong, but that they are suffused with a sense of superiority.” This self-righteous interest group should be confronted and opposed, preferably by intellectual equals. Bennett’s artillery is “logic, humor—those pompous academic types can’t stand to be made fun of—and reductio ad absurdum.”

Yet sometimes Bennett is willing to put aside principle in order to form winning coalitions. While campaigning for Bush, Bennett attacked the presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, also a Catholic and Jesuit-trained at Gonzaga high school. Bennett said, “There is another tradition… called football. It is played with a team, and the virtues there are loyalty and teamwork. Pat can use a little reminder of that.”

Bennett may have gone too far in the name of “honesty,” however, when he publicly stated that Patrick Buchanan was “flirting” with “fascism.” On the other hand, Buchanan is not innocent of name-calling either, as Bennett points out in the April 13 issue of National Review, where he is a senior editor. All this dissension within the ranks may fracture the conservative Catholic political movement and neutralize its force. Bennett and his interlocutors might do better to rise above such hotheaded tactics, which too often hit below the belt. As a scholar well-schooled in rhetoric, Bennett should know that legitimate debate concerning immigration policy and international trade agreements is more constructive for our democratic process than clever, sometimes witty, but nonetheless shallow name-calling.

His friends see him as a purveyor of the right and the truth. His enemies see him as a typical politician trying to justify self-interest and party interest in the name of something greater.

At a minimum, he is a very intelligent man, trained in logic and rhetoric, and immersed in political ambiguities. Although sometimes stuck in the swamp that is Washington, he has found, like many other explorers before him, that he likes it. He is a man with a mission. “Fundamental principles are at the heart of almost every one of the jobs I held,” he writes. “I took to politics Flannery O’Connor’s advice: You must push as hard as the age that pushes against you.”

Of late Bennett the political strategist has retreated from the front line in politics. He recently accepted a job as a political commentator for Good Morning America, while continuing to work for the Hudson Institute, and he has established a Cultural Working Group at the Heritage Foundation. Perhaps the casualties he and his troops suffered in the front line need healing. That seems unlikely, however, given his record. During this temporary retreat, he will regroup, recruit new troops, develop new and more effective strategies. When the tide in American politics turns, he will be ready to launch a new attack, having already prepared the way with reconnaissance operations.

  • Susan Moran

    At the time this article was published, Susan Moran was an editorial assistant for publications at the American Enterprise Institute.

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