AllPolitics - TIME This Week

The Chairman Of Virtue

Bill Bennett's stock is soaring. But will success spoil his appetite for higher office?

By Dan Goodgame/ Washington

TIME Magazine

(TIME, September 16) -- They've seen him on television, but some in the sparse morning crowd at the Valleyfair! amusement park in Minnesota can't quite place him--the big guy over there by the roller coaster. Maybe he's that football coach, Bill something. Bill Parcells? They aren't sure, and being Midwesterners, several greet him with a cautious "Hiya, coach." Bill Bennett just grins, nods and lets his son Joseph, 7, tow him away through the shimmering heat toward the bumper cars.

It's a moment that Bennett, 53, experiences with some regularity and recalls with self-deprecating relish. In other contexts--in an airport, say, clad in one of his Rochester Big & Tall business suits--Bennett is easily recognized by people who gush praise for his books and urge him to run for President. But when he wears sneakers and shorts in a place like Valleyfair!, which he visited before delivering a lecture in nearby Minneapolis, he is more likely to hear "Hiya, coach." And, in fact, it has become a fitting job description.

Though Bennett this year has declined to climb into the political arena, he has been coaching candidates of both parties--including Bob Dole and, indirectly, Bill Clinton--in the politics of virtue. Each time Dole criticizes the harm done to children and society by violent and sex-drenched movies, he travels a path pioneered by Bennett. After Bennett criticized Dole's campaign as "incoherent and dispassionate," the candidate recruited Bennett to join him on the road and help frame speeches on cultural issues. So pleased was Dole with the results that he had his campaign manager ask whether Bennett might like to be his running mate. Bennett declined, but suggested his friend Jack Kemp.

When Clinton began to realize from polling data that today's voters are less interested in economics than in such child-rearing and values issues as school uniforms and deadbeat dads, an aide explained, "he ran into Bennett already standing on top of them." The President has approvingly cited Bennett's writings to his advisers and in private chats with the author. And although Bennett served as Education Secretary for President Reagan and drug czar for President Bush, he wins grudging praise from partisan Democrats like campaign strategist James Carville. "You gotta give Bennett credit," he says, "for taking the values debate beyond just bashing poor people, into areas which make a lot of people in his own party uncomfortable," like corporate responsibility and the effects of divorce on children.

Ever since his collection of moral tales, The Book of Virtues, began its 88-week ride on the New York Times best-seller list, Bennett has plumbed and profited from America's anxiety over the decline in standards of moral behavior. The success of his first Virtues anthology spawned two profitable sequels and a cartoon show, which debuted last week on PBS. Meanwhile, he has co-written a new book called Body Count, to be published this month, which blames the rise of young criminal predators on a "moral poverty" born of negligent parenting, welfare dependency and too-easy divorce. And Bennett's ubiquity on talk shows and opinion pages drives the most lucrative division of his virtue empire, the 47 lectures he will deliver this year to soap manufacturers and other conventioneers for about $40,000 a pop.

His critics find Bennett smug, and his size and forcefulness can make him look bullying. Most of his audiences, though, seem impressed that he speaks to cultural issues with moral confidence and without censoriousness. Virtue, he insists, must be taught to the young by their elders' example and through moral stories. Parents must place the welfare of their children ahead of material success and even marital happiness. Public figures and ordinary citizens alike should speak out on matters of right and wrong, but must make clear they don't mean to muzzle anyone. They should "shame" entertainment companies (including Time Warner, a favorite Bennett target) that they judge to be trafficking in rap-music lyrics that glorify rape and cop killing or in daytime TV shows that celebrate neo-Nazis and hookers.

Bennett's success attracts so many allies and advice seekers that he retains a savvy, full-time aide, Pete Wehner, to help him deal with politicians and the press. In a typical recent week, Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana phoned to work with Bennett on a bill that would expand tax incentives for contributions to charities that benefit the poor, while Democratic Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut volunteered to help with the crusade against trashy entertainment. Newt Gingrich scheduled a meeting with Bennett, and Rush Limbaugh phoned for an interview. The mail arrived in several cartons and contained, along with a dozen speaking invitations and Bennett's bulging brokerage statements, a photo of Bennett chatting with Clinton at a private party, which Clinton had inscribed, "Bill, it was good to see you--Don't laugh--I mean it!"

Bennett, though frank and provocative, has a keen sense of marketing and showmanship. While he upholds the value of religious faith, he distinguishes himself from TV evangelists and reaches a larger audience by keeping his discussion of virtues accessible even to secular readers and listeners. Reared an Irish Catholic Democrat in a broken home in Brooklyn, New York, he marries the instincts and grammar of a populist to the convictions of a social conservative. And he blends intellectual sweep with the physical presence of a prizefighter. It makes for quite a package. His speeches shift seamlessly from anecdotes told by cops and teachers, to appropriate quotations from Aristotle and Abe Lincoln. Wary of setting himself up for a fall as the King of Virtue, Bennett (an enthusiastic eater who tries to save himself with furious bouts of power walking) jokes about his lapses into pride and gluttony.

Many of Bennett's themes resonate with boomer parents who were '60s liberals but now seek an antidote to the antisocial, materialist messages their children are absorbing from popular culture. And as someone who himself played guitar in a rock band, had a date with Janis Joplin, opposed the Vietnam War and campaigned for civil rights in Mississippi, Bennett demonstrates through his personal journey how far America has moved during the past three decades on cultural issues.

William John Bennett was born in 1943 in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He was only four when his father, a mid-level bank employee, divorced his mother. Young Bill was an introverted child, seldom talking and always reading. His older brother Bob (now a celebrated Washington criminal lawyer for, among others, President Clinton) did the arguing and fighting for the two of them.

Their mother Nancy Walsh, a medical secretary, moved the family to Washington when Bill was 12 and entrusted him to the Jesuit fathers of Gonzaga High School, where he became the only honor student to start on the football team. Bennett accepted a scholarship to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he planned vaguely to study advertising. He played football, joined a fraternity and hauled furniture in the summers to meet expenses. But then, Bennett recalls, he enrolled in a philosophy course taught by a gifted professor, Laszlo Versenyi, and "fell in love with the stuff."

After Williams, Bennett entered the University of Texas as a doctoral candidate in political philosophy under the brilliant and ferocious John Silber. It was at Texas that Bennett was able to arrange a blind date, after one of her concerts, with hard-living singer Joplin. He recalls only that she seemed "sad" and envied his life as a graduate student.

Silber encouraged Bennett to take a teaching job at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he openly advertised his admiration for Martin Luther King and led civil rights teach-ins. He questioned how much some of the students were learning, though, when one counterdemonstrator scrawled a note on his door, GO BACK TO MOSCOW, YOU BIG RADIAL! [sic]. Uncertain about whether he wanted to continue teaching, Bennett in 1969 enrolled in Harvard Law School, meanwhile working as a dorm proctor and tutor. John Carnutte, now an immunologist in California, recalls arriving at Harvard from Dixon, Illinois, accompanied by his mother. "There were marijuana clouds over Harvard Square and all these protesters with long hair, and then we see this big, burly, clean-cut guy wearing a blue work shirt and smiling," Carnutte said. "He picked up my trunk locker on his back and carried it up four flights of stairs to my room and said he was going to take care of me. I felt a lot better about Harvard, and so did Mom."

Bennett shared his charges' interest in touch football, beer and especially rock music. (He once stopped traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike when he noticed the toll taker's badge and asked, "Hey, are you the Tommy Facenda who sang High School U.S.A.?") Bennett opposed the Vietnam War, but he respected the men who served there. He grew sickened by much of what he saw at Harvard: privileged youth skipping class to smoke dope and watch soap operas, and twisting the antiwar movement into an attack on America. Like another former Democrat, Ronald Reagan, Bennett thought less that he was turning right than that his party was turning crazy.

After finishing law school, Bennett found another mentor in Charles Frankel, a Columbia philosophy professor who became president of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina and hired Bennett as his executive director. One spring morning in 1979, Bennett arrived for an overnight visit with Frankel and his wife at their mansion in Bedford Hills, New York, but he hadn't even unpacked his bags before he was called away on urgent business. That night, the Frankels were murdered by burglars, who were caught and found to have been high on amphetamines.

The murders hardened Bennett's already tough attitudes toward crime and drugs, and changed his life in other ways. He was promoted to president of the humanities center, where his brash critiques of liberalism moved President Reagan to appoint him in 1981 to run the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington. The following year Bennett married Elayne Glover, a teacher with a strong social conscience whom he had met in North Carolina.

After three years in Washington, Bennett was promoted to Secretary of Education by Reagan. Bennett immediately took on the teachers' unions, the granting of taxpayer-subsidized loans to middle-class students who used them for stereos and cars, and the neglect of the basics in schools and colleges. He promoted "the three Cs": content, character and parental choice in public schools. President Reagan observed during one Cabinet meeting, "I see that Bill here is in trouble again with the Washington Post." He paused, then added, "So what's wrong with the rest of you?"

President Bush named Bennett director of his Office of National Drug Control Policy, where he recruited a strong staff and garnered much attention for its efforts and, of course, for himself. But several of his colleagues felt betrayed when he resigned after only 20 months to make more money outside government. "I was disappointed in him," said Reggie Walton, a Washington judge Bennett had hired as a top deputy. "I had signed on for a four-year effort, and when he left, that effort suffered tremendously."

During his time as Education Secretary, Bennett had become convinced that the country needed an update of McGuffey's Reader, a collection of moral tales children could read, and have read to them, to help counter all the junk on TV. When he left the Bush Administration, Bennett set out to produce such a book. With help from a brainy young assistant named John Cribb, Bennett considered 5,000 stories, selecting 320 and organizing them under 10 virtues: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

No one imagined the response The Book of Virtues would elicit, with 2.3 million copies sold to date. Bennett followed with an illustrated Children's Book of Virtues; a separate anthology aimed at adults, The Moral Compass; and the PBS cartoon series in which a buffalo named Plato (who bears a strong resemblance to Bennett) leads a pair of children through animated moral tales.

Bennett has enough book contracts and lecture requests to keep him rich and busy through the turn of the century. He helps with the "Best Friends" program, co-founded by his wife, which encourages sexual abstinence among girls in the poorest neighborhoods of Washington and 12 other cities, and has sharply increased their graduation rates. The Bennetts and their two young sons spend summers and weekends on the Outer Banks of North Carolina at what Bill has dubbed "the beach house that virtue built." And he pursues his goal of walking up America's "fourteeners," its 55 mountains above 14,000 ft., of which he has conquered 28. Life is good.

But when Bennett talks of the 1996 campaign, he betrays a frustration that borders on regret. Friends and strangers urged him to run, and last year he seriously considered it. But he says he couldn't imagine spending most of his time "having cocktails with people who want to explain the obvious, or tell me how what's good for them is good for the country, and I have to smile and nod because now I'm just another politician who needs their money."

Ted Forstmann, a wealthy New York investor who had helped fund Empower America, the conservative Washington think tank that Bennett co-directs, got a taste of Bennett's attitude when Forstmann tried to recruit another Master of the Universe, Julian Robertson, to support the think tank. Forstmann invited Robertson to meet Bennett, Jack Kemp and others from Empower America at his home in Manhattan. Things started out cordially, but before long, a dispute broke out over abortion, with Robertson challenging Bennett's call for more restrictions on the practice. Bennett showed no deference to a potential benefactor. At one point, as Bennett was arguing, Forstmann kept trying to interrupt: "Bill...Bill...Bill..." To which Bennett replied, "Forget it, Ted, the money's gone by now." Forstmann icily explained that he wasn't thinking of Robertson's money, but of the expensive and fragile chair Bennett was rocking on its back legs. "Now Ted," Bennett retorted, "why would you put a guy like me in a chair like this?"

Bennett often approvingly quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes' line that "the place for a man who is complete in all his parts is in the fight." But there are doubts, even in Bennett's mind, about whether he is sufficiently complete to fight for the presidency. He knows little and cares less about economics and foreign policy, for example, and there was nothing on either subject in his book bag for the long summer holiday at his beach house.

Some take that as evidence that Bennett, now a millionaire, has grown complacent. "The kind of sudden fame and fortune Bill has earned, even though he has earned it, is not good for one's character," says David Tell, a writer for the Weekly Standard who has worked for Bennett and admires him. "Bill has a great capacity for work, but I don't think he's working very hard right now, in his reading or writing."

Nor is he honing his people skills. It's not just toadying to rich strangers that Bennett finds distasteful; he has little patience for any strangers. Even after his speeches, when he's surrounded by fans who just want a handshake, a few words, a signature in a book, he wears an alarmed and hunted look. He's polite, yet he can't wait to get away, back to his car and driver; to his cell phone and messages and the news clippings he's always reading.

But if Bennett won't gladhand, neither does he pander. He frequently challenges his middle- and upper-class audiences, pointing out that men in the ghetto aren't the only ones walking out on their families these days. In a speech to the Christian Coalition, Bennett urged its members to avoid a "fixation on homosexuality" and instead turn their attention "closer to home," to the epidemic of divorce that poses a worse threat "in terms of damage to the children of America."

Bennett could further advance the debate if he would write and talk as explicitly in public as he does in private about the danger of corporate conservatism's worship of "the market" above older conservative values such as family, community and country. It's what Daniel Bell famously described as "the cultural contradictions of capitalism." Conservatives back to Edmund Burke viewed the market as a useful tool, not a god. But this tradition is in retreat in the U.S., and it's one Bennett hopes to revive. "There's obviously a tension between the market and virtue," Bennett says. "The market is all about creating desire and gratifying it. Virtue is mostly about postponing gratification."

Today's economy has pushed many couples into working two or more jobs between them, and has contributed heavily to the neglect of parenting that lies behind many of the cultural pathologies he bemoans. But Bennett calls it a "cop-out," especially for the middle class, to blame family problems on the economy or insufficient help from the government. "If a couple really makes their children a priority," he says, "they will find jobs that allow them more time with their kids, even if that means making less money and living someplace less expensive."

He hears in his travels of people making precisely those kinds of tough choices, and finding fulfillment in them, and he wishes society would honor them more. "I can't accept," he says, "that we're helpless to save our families and our society without some new federal program or regulation." As individuals and through voluntary associations, he says, paraphrasing novelist Flannery O'Connor, we must push back as hard as the age that pushes against us.

More TIME This Week

tomorrow's news today
Pathfinder Personal Edition

AllPolitics home page
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics
All Rights Reserved
Terms under which this information is provided to you