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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Beyond the Politics
Aired October 5, 2008 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL BENNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Bill Bennett here. I want to go BEYOND THE POLITICS. I want to ask the real questions. How is America doing? We talked about leadership and people don't have the confidence in Congress or the president.
Do Americans still believe in (INAUDIBLE)? It's up to you. Is your confidence in this country, for yourself and for your children, as whole as you'd like it to be.
Let's talk about that.
From time to time, even in the red heat of an election season, it's important to take a step back and reflect on first principles. Get past the arrows and talking points of the passing day and discuss the state of the country after November.
What kind of country do we want? After the confetti has fallen, the election is done. Abraham Lincoln said if we can know first where we are and wither we are tending, we can better judge what to do and how to do it.
So today, and on a few tomorrow, we will go beyond politics. I'm Bill Bennett and I would like to introduce my guests.
Amy Holmes, former speechwriter for an old friend of mine, Majority Leader Bill Frist, and now a political analyst and CNN contributor. David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale, a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of "Americanism." Steven Waldman, named one of the nation's spiritual innovators by "TIME" magazine and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com.
And finally, Alan Wolfe, a recovering journalist who is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
OK. With this bailout debate, you could argue that this has been a pretty bad month for national institutions, institutions that used to seem invincible -- the Wall Street, Lehman Brothers, the banking system, the presidency, even the government to which we turn as a last resort.
So are we seeing a collapse of our institutions? Are people nervous that our major institutions are collapsing? Or is there a loss of moral faith in those institutions?
ALAN WOLFE, PROFESSOR, BOSTON COLLEGE, AUTHOR, "THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM": I certainly am struck by the lack of a true moral discussion about the bailout and all the things associated with it. One time we were a country guided by the puritan ethic of self restraint.
I hear very little talk about self restraint and taking responsibility for your acts. Catholics in this country talk a lot about social justice. I see little discussion of the justice issues that are involved in what we're doing.
So sometimes I wonder, you are very, very religious and moral country, but we seem to talk about religion and morality in some spirits of life, maybe even the ones we don't need them, and yet don't talk about them when we really have a crisis like this.
BENNETT: Aren't we talking about the morality of Wall Street? I mean, I've even heard things like we're going to get rid of greed or, you know, we're going to -- we're going to legislate against -- we'll get rid of agreed, attacking the Wall Street people.
There seems to be a sense of moral outrage, if I can say that, in the American people about this, which, in fact, is kind of out of sync with what seems, to a lot of people, to be going on in Washington.
Do I have that right or wrong in?
DAVID GELERNTER, PROFESSOR, YALE UNIVERSITY, AUTHOR, "AMERICANISM": I think the moral outrage is misdirected. After all, this is an argument about whether the American people want to support extending mortgages to people who ordinarily don't qualify for them.
If they can't meet their payments, should we, as a people, should we as a nation, help them to buy homes? I mean this is a dramatic extension of how we define our social responsibility. We never really openly discussed it. But as far as financial crisis, if it can be solved by a vote of Congress, I don't believe it is a crisis.
BENNETT: But hasn't that point -- if there's a sense of moral outrage about people getting loans who don't qualify -- isn't that more muted certainly among the candidates? We've heard more about Wall Street. No doubt Wall Street is involved, but is it easier to beat up on rich people on Wall Street?
I take it, it is.
STEVEN WALDMAN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, BELIEFNET.COM, FMR. EDITOR, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: It's the first time to go around talking about the moral depravity of the voters you're trying to...
WALDMAN: ... to court. But it is true that, you know, the puritans get a bad rap and you tend to think of them as being all about being opposed to sex, but they also were about thrift, they also were about, you know, saving and things like that. And that's, obviously, part of what drove this financial crisis.
AMY HOLMES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, FMR. SEN. FIRST SPEECHWRITER: Well, I think that there are two things that work in this. And we did see this sort of introduced grubby politics to this conversation. We did see early on with the mortgage crisis that the vast majority of the American public -- they thought it would be unfair to bail out people, homeowners, who didn't make their payments.
They said I can make my payment. Fairness is really important to the American people. But when you look at this election season, politically, there are these two things that at work here -- compassion, compassion for those people who may have gotten in over their heads, and then also this issue of fairness and wanting to punish those who then are dragging the rest of us down.
I think we see our politicians trying to struggle with kind of those two sensibilities.
BENNETT: All right, before we decide among whom we'd pick and choose to beat up, whether Wall Street or people who can't make payments or people in Washington who weren't watching the -- you know, watching chicken coop, isn't it true, Alan, that there is this kind of moral dimension to American politics that we have one of the guys who visited this country talked about bill of rights, talk about the moral squint?
We have this kind of moral thing that a lot of people think we should grow up beyond. But it's important to us, isn't it?
WOLFE: No. We are a moralistic country. We are not a moral country. And there's a big difference between them. Morality involves -- well, in a Christian sense, it involves there but for the grace of God do I, from a moral philosophy standpoint, it involves being able to see things through the perspective of another person.
I think we're having moralistic and that actually prevents us from being moral. We want to blame other people rather than look into ourselves. We want to see others divided in the good and evil which really prohibits you from thinking a moral point of view.
So you want confrontation, no, we're not moral. We're moralistic.
BENNETT: All right. Agreement, disagreement?
GELERNTER: I think we're a profoundly moral country. I don't think there's any country on earth that has a better record of trying its best. I mean, we often fail, but we always try our best to point out what the moral issue really is. We want to get at it because that's what this nation is about.
It's not a single ethnicity or a small bunch of ethnicities or an ancient monarchy. It's -- it's ideas, not genes, that make America. And those ideas are moral issues -- liberty, equality, democracy. These are moral issues. They come from a Judeo-Christian tradition and they mean a tremendous lot to Americans.
BENNETT: They at the foundation of American life, American political life in your view?
BENNETT: In your view, Steve?
WALDMAN: Well, this is an unusual country in that it was founded by people who came here around a moral idea. It was settled on the hope that this was going to be a Christian paradise. But it's interesting, remember that that was the puritan sense.
We also had the Jamestown settlers who were in it for a buck. They were trying -- they were doing it to make some money. So you had this tension in American history between moral dimensions going back and forth with really more self interests than...
BENNETT: This north/south thing, this red state/blue state thing, right, from the beginning?
HOLMES: But I would say making money is immoral. And those -- certainly people who make money have a moral argument for it, but I like to think of our country as being a deeply country. I think the civil rights movement is very indicative of this, that this was a moral movement when it was to appeal to all Americans, not just one sliver of Americans. And that's part of how we've made so much progress so.
BENNETT: I should give you a response, two votes for moral. I don't know where Steve wants to...
WOLFE: I couldn't agree more with Amy about the civil rights movement, but I think it was the exception. And it stands out so dramatically because in the presence of Martin Luther King Junior, we had a genuinely moral leader as opposed to a moralistic leader.
BENNETT: Lincoln not a moral leader?
WOLFE: Moralism -- I'm talking about more contemporary...
WOLFE: Absolutely, Lincoln is my favorite. My all time.
Moralistic is posturing. Moral is some kind of sincere and deep reflection. It's hard. Moralism is easy, it's just sort of do you denounce, you praise yourself, you denounce others.
I would love to see us translate our morality, which was there from the beginning as David says, and as Mr. (INAUDIBLE) says, but I think we've lost it to moralistic impulses and I'd love to get the morality back.
BENNETT: Go ahead, David.
GELERNTER: It's interesting you should bring up Lincoln. It seems to me that very much the process America went through during the Civil War, we have gone through during Iraq, we began with moralist pragmatic concrete goals. As the war developed, we lost men, we paid, and we bled.
It seemed to us that something more important had better be at stake and the civil war, we turned it in for a fight for the -- for the fundamental alteration of the country.
In Iraq, we decided we weren't just there to clear up a present danger and to serve our interests in the Middle East, we actually wanted to build a real functioning democracy and we were willing to pay American lives to do that.
I think it's extraordinary, an extraordinary piece of work. We've done something similar in Afghanistan. And where is there another country that has a record of doing that consistently?
HOLMES: Well, you could also bring up Darfur, for example. That, you know, the American people want to stop the genocide there. We don't necessarily have a national interest, a pragmatic interest, but, you know -- it just aspens our moral sensibility.
WALDMAN: Africa is a good example, though, because for several decades, we were ignoring Africa because it didn't seem in our national interests. But one of the things that changed that actually was that American churches, Evangelical churches, started to view Africa as a moral issue and insert that into foreign policy.
So we had this strong -- this strong strain that comes in, but it's not necessarily the dominant strain.
HOLMES: But it's interesting that by injecting the moral dimension into the Africa problem, that's what got America's attention. So getting back to the question, are we a moral country? If you tell us to hear your pragmatic interests, we might ignore it, but if you actually try to appeal to the morality of the American people, all of a sudden it can start to make a little bit more sense.
BENNETT: Yes, it was interesting to me that Bill Clinton said his greatest regret was Rwanda, you know, not acting there. And I noticed even in the context of the political debate recently, Darfur came up as a subject that people were talking about.
So, I mean, when one brings that up that suggests that has some resonance with the American people, those kinds of questions.
WOLFE: How about this? A moral country is one that does not need to keep telling itself it's a moral country. It just does the right thing, it doesn't need to shout it to the world, it doesn't need to pat itself on the back.
I worry about a country that becomes too self congratulatory. BENNETT: Do the people do that, Alan? Or do the politicians do it? I mean, I would -- you know, there's an expression in the south you're bragging on yourself. Most people are a little uneasy doing that sort of thing.
Politicians aren't, but that's the kind of the standard fare, isn't it?
HOLMES: I think that's right. And I think you can look at charitable giving, for example. Most people, they don't wear their charities on their sleeve as a badge of honor. They -- quietly they write their checks, they send it in and that's something that their family does.
BENNETT: One of the things about Africa, your old boss, Bill Frist, called me from Africa after I asked him to call because we were looking at these surveys and opinions about America -- which is what I want to get into in the next segment -- you know, the last best hope.
We'll talk about that in the next two segments, if we're still the last best hope. But when you look at surveys and opinion about the United States, a great country that -- a lot of countries in Western Europe aren't so sure. Highest opinion of America is in certain African countries, you know?
And Bill Frist told me -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to talk about it -- people who receive American generosity know what kind of country this is.
GELERNTER: The fact that we do not brag, I mean, I think that's one of the reasons where he so poorly understood. Since when do we get up and claim credit for what we have done in Iraq?
We don't go around the world saying look at us, we have invested our army and our wealth in bringing democracy to this far away Arab country. We don't say that? Nor do we said it about Afghanistan. I think this is -- you do need a certain amount of patting yourself on the shoulder. You've got to teach your children what your principles are.
BENNETT: All right.
BENNETT: All right. I wanted you all to be smart and engaged, so there's no problem with that. We've got to take a short break and then we'll come back.
I want to talk when we come back about culture and politics. What really at the bottom is more important? We're in a political season. Is that what matters most?
BENNETT: You know, I had two jobs in government, secretary of education and drug czar. I had a third job, too, but relevant for this discussion, those two jobs. And it occurred to me as secretary of education and as drug czar that, although a lot of people I was meeting, talking to, were saying we need help from the government, we need help from the government, and, indeed, help should have been forthcoming, and some for us, that for most of what ails us, it seems to me, I used to say give me a stronger school, stronger family, stronger churches, and I'll give you back 80 percent of the pathology of American life.
I get worried in a political season like the one we're in that we're putting too many eggs in the basket of politics, expecting too much. And when you hear the speeches, and really both parties, I'll give that you, I'll give you that, we'll provide this, we'll provide that.
Are we promising too much and overlooking the really critical institutions?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan says, "The central conservative truth is that it's culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
WALDMAN: Well, I'm actually -- even though it is true that we tend to focus on this during election time, I'm actually sort of optimistic about this. I know that now that I have teenaged kids, I know my job is to tell them how immoral they are and how immoral teens are compared to the good old days when I was a teen.
But the reality is...
BENNETT: And I assume they're doing their job and telling you they -- OK.
WALDMAN: Exactly. You know but the reality is that teenagers volunteer a lot more than I did. College students volunteer a lot more than I did. Divorce is actually going down. You know if you look at the churches and religious institutions in America are actually quite vibrant.
So if -- I actually think in a lot of the -- this mediating institutions, there's some real health.
HOLMES: And I -- I'd also add that the public is really skeptical of a lot of those political...
BENNETT: They are.
HOLMES: But they know where...
HOLMES: Right. I mean they know where the bottom line is and that it is with their families. And when politicians appeal to that, it rings true. I mean we heard Sarah Palin talking about personal responsibility in the mortgage crisis, what we talked about in the earlier segment. Congressional approval rating is only at 10 percent, with Democrats in charge. So I think there's a difference between the public and what they're actually accepting and politicians and what they're selling.
BENNETT: I think those teenagers will be here, they'll bring busloads of kids to this town and I remember a group tried to get me to sign up to be leader for this group of kids, who come in, because they want to improve the country, they said. They're worried about the country, so they want to come to Washington.
I said if they're worried about the country, send them to Hollywood, you know? Have them talk -- because those are the people who are having -- whether you agree with what they do or not -- a major, much more profound influence.
I know many more kids who watch TV and listen to music than watch C- SPAN.
WOLFE: May I be permitted to dissent to you again...
BENNETT: Absolutely. Absolutely.
WOLFE: ... from this idea that our cultural institutions are more vibrant that we generally think. The word culture comes from the same word as cultivate. Cultivate a field. Culture is an effort. Culture requires that you really work on something.
It means when you take nature and transform it into something, through deliberate actions. It's hard work. And I agree completely with Senator Moynihan about the importance of culture.
I don't think we're working hard enough on our culture. You mentioned, Bill, that our politicians just give us what we want. Well, unfortunately, some of our religious leaders, big growth in religion is sort of offering people kind of easy salvation. So do too many of our educational leaders.
We have great inflation, which (INAUDIBLE). This is a very serious issue. We have salvation inflation. We have great inflation. Our culture is thinning out because no one's making demands. But it's not just government.
BENNETT: Education inflation, too.
WOLFE: All -- yes. Yes.
BENNETT: At the school level. Yes.
WOLFE: All our institutions. And it's kind of what democracy does. They want to respond to the popular world, but culture means resistance to what people might want at any given time. And it's hard to resist.
GELERNTER: Absolutely. I have to agree strongly. I see that our teachers at the college level and at lower levels want to be friends with their students instead of teaching our students. I see schools in desperately mediocre shape, certainly all over the northeast and the college students that we see each year seem to be less capable in basic skills and...
WOLFE: Not Yale. Not at Yale.
GELERNTER: Especially at Yale.
BENNETT: OK, we got news. We got news.
GELERNTER: They're really smart, they're really smart, but they just don't know anything. And their teachers haven't taught them anything. And ultimately it's the fault of their parents. That's where the quality control check has to be and it's not coming through.
Their parents want to be pals, too, instead of asserting authority and saying this is right and this is wrong. I expect you to learn this and go back and learn it. I don't see that happening to the extent it should have happened.
BENNETT: Steve, you started this, saying things were better. It sounds pretty -- like it's in shambles.
WALDMAN: OK. I think...
BENNETT: OK, get -- overwhelmed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was easy.
WALDMAN: Well, now I'll say the part of culture that I do worry about. And the truth is that when I go out with other parents who have kids my age, we don't tend to talk about government. We tend to talk about the fact that, you know, a 10-year-old kid on their cell phone can call up hardcore porn that was unthinkable in our generation.
So the sex and violence on TV and on the Internet, that's what we talk about. That's what we really worry about. And it's amazing how that has come up hardly at all during this political campaign, even though that's at the heart of what, you know, a lot of parents are struggling with.
BENNETT: You know I noticed this, too, on the radio when we pick a topic like that, you just -- we talked about videogames one day and I had nothing but callers who were addicted to videogames saying -- I listen to your show and then I play videogames all day.
We talk about an issue like drug abuse. It knocks the politics stuff right off. People want to talk about their lives, their kids and so on. WOLFE: An issue like gambling which is one of the fastest growing -- you know industries in this country. And it appeals to people's most basic kinds of needs. I think it's -- I mean I'm glad David Gelernter and I agree.
WOLFE: My friends know me as a political liberal, but when it comes to cultural issues, I agree with a lot of conservative thinking.
BENNETT: I want -- we got to go to break. When we come back, we can continue this discussion and I want to talk about -- because we've talked about Lincoln a couple of times, about America as the last best hope.
Are we still to, other people, to ourselves? We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will restore our moral standing so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom who long for lives of peace and who yearn for a better future.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BENNETT: Welcome back. I'm Bill Bennett. We're talking BEYOND THE POLITICS. So we can once again become the last best hope of earth? When did we lose it? Did we stop being the last best hope?
HOLMES: Oh boy, Bill, that really jumped out at me when Barack Obama said that. I mean how to unpack this? First of all, when he said, "I will restore this." This, to me, is a total contradiction of the idea that America's strength comes from its people, not from the charismatic leader.
Secondly, the idea that America has lost that type of moral standing? I mean, a lot of Americans keep asking what about immigration, where was he in this immigration debate?
And the idea that people around the world no longer see America as a beacon of freedom, Bill, I just went to a friend's -- citizenship ceremony last week at the federal courthouse here in Washington, D.C. I saw a room full of people raising their hand to say I love this country so much I want to become its citizen.
You couldn't help but be moved by this. I think this is the America that people come here to know, that people here live here know, and for Barack Obama to say that we've lost that, we've lost our moral standing? It just, to me...
BENNETT: Well, Barack -- Barack Obama's side, is it true that, not in the eyes of the world, but the American people still regard America the way Lincoln did as the last best hope of earth? GELERNTER: The moral stature and how they regard themselves is the key issue. I mean, the first thing you teach a child is don't follow the multitude to do evil. What is important is not what your peer and intellectuals or journalists say about you, it's what you think about yourself.
I think we're reasonably confident that we are doing our best to do the right thing. I think the idea that we regard ourselves as no longer the last best hope is false except insofar as we're losing, I think, the whole picture. Our picture of the United States is dissolving because we're not teaching our children well enough who we are and what we are.
GELERNTER: We still care about it. We still care about it.
BENNETT: I want to get to that teaching point in a minute.
Alan, you look to me like you were just about to disagree again.
WOLFE: Yes, as I remember what Senator Obama was trying to say, and if he wasn't, he should have been, is a reference to the fact that over the past few years, we've been engaging in torture, we have the -- are known as Guantanamo Bay. We've suspended habeas corpus, we're not obeying the Geneva Conventions, and he wants to get America back to what it was when it honored all of those things.
That's why, I think, it is a presidential responsibility. He's talking about the president as a moral leader who can take America back to the ideals that it believes in most. Unless we honor those ideas of freedom and human dignity, we are not, in fact, the world's best hope.
WALDMAN: I agree. I think that really was about torture and that torture is the stain on America as the beacon of freedom and hope in the -- I think actually one of the big scandals of this last decade is that religious leaders were relatively silent on the torture debate.
Now there's pragmatic art in the favor of torture, but at a minimum, it's a profound moral argument that we didn't have.
HOLMES: But do you think it's actually true that people don't want to come to this country, that they don't see America as a place where they can fulfill their dreams and their ideals...
HOLMES: ... and their children's futures? I mean I think that's still there. I got to a lot of reaction that was you have to be proud of your country if you want to lead it.
WOLFE: I think it is an issue. You know we live in a global world and immigrants come here from all over. And they still have families and friends back home. And when immigrants from the Arab and Muslim land talk about the patriot act, or talk about what it's like to get through immigration, and naturalization, and how unwelcome people are, that word spreads. It spreads into all those places that breed terrorism.
BENNETT: Can we talk about the torture thing just very specifically? Because the two of you objected.
In general, no. But some circumstances. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, waterboarding to get the information that prevented perhaps the bombing of buildings in Chicago or Los Angeles. I would be in favor of it.
Is my moral sense dead?
GELERNTER: Absolutely. It's...
BENNETT: It is?
GELERNTER: I think you're right. I think -- I think if you're the commander in chief, you have a responsibility to put the protection of your country and of the world at large first. It's a terrible burden to take it upon yourself to authorize the waterboarding of so many. That's what we pay them for.
BENNETT: Right. But in...
GELERNTER: But as a leader, it's expected to...
BENNETT: Let's go back to the general question. You wanted to make a quick comment?
WALDMAN: There's a reason that inside the Bush administration they thought that the biggest catastrophe of the word was when the photos of Abu Ghraib became public because they knew that that was a stain on the America standard of principle.
BENNETT: It was a stain. I think we all agree. Do you think that, in general -- I guess one of those philosophical (INAUDIBLE), hearing all this back and forth, and the war and everything else, that the American people believe less in this country overall than we did at the time of Lincoln?
WOLFE: No, but I think you run a risk when the leadership of the country does things like this, that it could be corrosive down to the level of the individual people. In terms of the individual people, yes, they love their country, as everyone was saying.
There's no doubt about that.
BENNETT: And it's what it deserves.
WOLFE: But that's all the more reason...
BENNETT: Overall, it's what it deserves. WOLFE: Well, that's all the more reason why our leaders have to live up to our ideals and not violate them. When they do, then it's deserved. When they don't, it isn't.
WALDMAN: I think that, you know, not to double back in to politics, but actually this campaign is a very hopeful campaign in some ways, the fact that you have these two candidates who both proved two different aspects of the American dream.
BENNETT: Both have lift. Right.
WALDMAN: Both have lift, both are embodiments of incredible whether it's character in fighting for the country or equal opportunity. I think that's the exciting part of what we're seeing now.
BENNETT: A couple great American stories.
HOLMES: Sure. And let's not forget, I mean, through the '90s, we had the culture wars. Is our culture going to a hell in a hand basket with our popular culture and sex and violence? But then we saw 9/11, Americans were deeply patriotic and deeply in love with the idea of America.
BENNETT: We're going to get in to the patriotism question and is it taking in our kids learning our country. Can you love something that you don't know? This is a special favorite topic of mine.
We'll be back. It's BEYOND POLITICS WITH BILL BENNETT.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. I loved it, not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency, for its faith, and the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people.
I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BENNETT: Welcome back. I'll Bill Bennett. We're discussing some of the deeper issues that are too often neglected in this election season.
Once again I'm joined by four exceptional thinkers from different fields. CNN political contributor, Amy Holmes, like myself, a proud member of the best political team on television.
Computer scientist and author David Gelernter, Steven Waldman, founder of Beliefnet, a non-denominational resource for spiritual inspiration and information. And Alan Wolfe, political science professor, an observer of the interaction of religion and politics in American life.
He's no longer my own man, I was my country's. Is that something that still appeals to the American people, to young people, to your students?
GELERNTER: It sure does, when you give them a chance, to be appealed to. But in too many cases, they have gone through an educational system in which their teachers and their professors are not merely not patriotic than actively instill the dislike of the United States.
My own kids, and also my students, have been taught repeatedly that the villain of modern history over the last 50 years since the Second World War has been the United States, tramping on -- the rights and liberties of small countries again and again, but it's also the case, not only are we not teaching patriotism, I mean, we're suppressing natural patriotism.
But we're not teaching the history to people who need to know in order to be patriotic. It was an amazing thing to find out at the Republican convention that lots of people had no idea that McCain had been a prisoner of war.
And now that they know his story, does it mean -- what do they know about the Vietnam War? I mean how many of them think of we sent Petraeus into Iraq, the situation changed? But we sent Creighton Abrams in to Vietnam for Westmoreland in 1968. The situation turned around. We were winning that war.
People need to know that. They don't know it.
BENNETT: But the resonance in the term, the meaning of the term -- let's go back to the bailout here for a second. Joe Biden, whether fairly or unfairly, was made fun of for saying -- you know by raising some -- by paying some taxes, you could be regarded as more patriotic.
Interesting he used the term patriotic. But supposedly you look at the bailout and said, look, what we have here is a failure to communicate patriotism. This was selfishness and people didn't care if this might wreck the banking system of the country or the government agencies of the country.
Is that a fairway to look at it?
GELERNTER: Who is it who didn't care? I mean the mortgage agencies, the lending agencies were doing what Congress told them to do, that is, lend to more -- lend to more people. And the investment banks were doing the same thing they always do, putting high risk investment instruments together.
It was not a conspiracy. This is just the way the financial institutions were. And they were responding to an explicit decree by Congress. We want mortgages to go to people who can't afford them. With the implication being that if they fail to pay their bills, unlike most Americans, they will be bailed out by the American people.
(CROSSTALK) BENNETT: Yes, sir?
WOLFE: I thought that -- I'm glad you brought up Senator Biden's comments, because some people called it a gaffe. I think it was one of the most moving and profound statements made during the entire campaign.
Patriotism means something larger than yourself. Your country is larger than yourself. When you pay taxes, you contribute to something larger than yourself. You contribute to this collective thing called the United States of America.
And that was he was getting at. He was very eloquent. I remember the next day when someone questioned him, he said I'm tired of people who don't understand that this country is what we make of it together.
And I thought that was great. In fact, I actually think, as stronger support of that beautiful quote from Senator McCain, because I was listening carefully and Senator McCain said, it is the idea of the country we like. And that idea is embodied through the things we do together as a people in our collective efforts.
HOLMES: You know I'm not sure that patriotism should be measured by a financial contribution via taxes to the federal government. It's that feeling of wanting to defend America no matter what. And I think when you look at young people, part of the problem of patriotism and expressing that emotion is it's un-ironic.
It is sincere. It can be easily mocked. I think patriotism is a lot like religion that you don't want to wear that under your sleeve, you don't want to shout that at the rooftops because that might make you look foolish.
HOLMES: But again in times of crisis when Americans really need to come together and express is that love of country, they do. They lose the irony, they lose the coolness, and all of a sudden, when you ask the question, can imagine this planet without America on it? It's unimaginable.
WALDMAN: Well, I actually think one of the exciting and potentially important aspects of the Obama campaign is that he's giving voice to a Democratic style of patriotism. That in the '60s and '70s, it really was that there was an antagonism towards patriotism on the left. You saw all the places still, apparently still at Yale.
BENNETT: You only said it to me. I'm going to hear.
WOLFE: Not only. Not only.
BENNETT: It's fair enough. We'll generalize it. WALDMAN: But...
BENNETT: Won't deny it. We'll generalize.
WALDMAN: But I think he's giving a voice to people who, on the left, who want to have a way of expressing their patriotism, and have not felt that the dominant vocabulary from the right has spoken to them.
HOLMES: And imposing taxes is a way that they're going express their patriotism?
WOLFE: That's one -- absolutely. You got to put your money where your mouth is. And if you want your country to stand for something larger than yourself...
GELERNTER: But not...
WOLFE: You've got to support -- but absolutely...
GELERNTER: If people don't pay taxes, are they unpatriotic?
WOLFE: Well, certainly there's large...
GELERNTER: I think...
WOLFE: Certain large corporations should pay more. If taxes are unpatriotic because they parasitically use the country that provides them for so much without putting their share in.
WOLFE: You know I think the more important question is...
GELERNTER: I'm talking about poor people who don't meet the minimum tax.
WOLFE: The question of love of country is what do we love it for? And I think we should begin with the premise that we all love our country. Well, we may disagree with what we love it for, but it is so awful, I think, when people, especially in politics, start saying that someone else is not patriotic.
That's something we ought to avoid. We're a pluralistic country and we should be pluralistic in our patriotism.
WALDMAN: Yes, I think the key point is that there's not only one way of expressing your patriotism. That's what people actually on both sides, you were saying, oh, come on, it's not taxes and you're saying, come on, it's about defending it.
HOLMES: I wasn't saying it was about taxes. WALDMAN: But it's -- no, I'm saying you were mocking that view and it is possible to have expressions for love of country in multiple different ways.
BENNETT: But nobody stops you from giving as much money as you want to the government. Right? The question isn't coerced patriotism...
BENNETT: Like a draft. No, I understand.
GELERNTER: Do you remember how many people after the last election said if Bush wins, I'm going to Canada? Now, you're saying we're all patriotic. Was that an expression of patriotism? If my candidate loses the election, I'm getting out of here? I'm clearing out of here?
WOLFE: Yes, but they do.
GELERNTER: Well, it's -- all right, then so they were shooting off their mouths but I think a lot of them...
WOLFE: Yes, shooting out of their mouths.
GELERNTER: ... were serious at the time.
BENNETT: All right. I just need to cut you off. We need to end this discussion. We'll come back and I want to pick up on the question that we hinted at a couple times. What about the learning about the country? How can you love something you don't know?
This is a special topic, a favorite topic of mine. We'll talk about that when we come back.
BENNETT: Now we started talking about the bailout crisis, the laying of blame, America as a moral country, patriotism, talked about young people.
Now I do know something about one piece of this. What subject do you think is our worst subject in American schools? Do you think it's read? Nope. Do you think it's math? Nope. Do you think it's science? Nope.
It's American history. Our knowledge of American history is at the bottom. Now, how do we expect people to love their country if they don't know their country? They will be asked to pay taxes for their country as we've discussed. They may even be asked to go to war and die for their country.
How can we ask them to do this if they do not know their country? Do they? Why not? What can we do about it? We'll talk about that when we come back from BEYOND POLITICS. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BENNETT: I wonder if in the midst of this political debate and talks about bailouts and government and corruption and the last eight years and the next eight year, if we all suspect that we might do a little better in this discussion if we knew a little more, knew a little more about our country and its history and have we been there before.
David McCullough, one of my favorite authors, who says the following, "I think we are sadly failing our children. If we raise generation after generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate, we are running a terrible risk to this country. You can have amnesia of a society, which is as detrimental as amnesia of an individual."
How about that? Do we run that risk?
GELERNTER: We're already there.
BENNETT: We are.
GELERNTER: I mean, we went through one generation of poor history teaching and the children graduate and became history teachers and now we have history teachers who don't know what they're talking about. The books are no good, the teachers are no good, the attitude is no good.
I mean if you tell children, first of all, you are part of a global society and you're going to learn the history in the world, and then in our extra time we'll tell something about the United States, you know you're a loser to begin with.
It's already happening.
BENNETT: Tell me not all of us are like that.
GELERNTER: Sure. And there are some extraordinary teachers and there are a few extraordinary schools. But the students that I see at the college, what I see in public schools in Connecticut, what I read about in public schools around the country, makes it clear that American history is not being taught and children are not learn it go.
I mean it goes back to abolishing holidays for Washington and Lincoln birthdays. So I mean as simple as that. You know at least people knew these are two presidents and we know approximately when they were born and when...
BENNETT: You won't take the holiday even if it's on a Wednesday?
BENNETT: You don't want to sacrifice it for a weekday.
GELERNTER: Even if it's a Wednesday.
BENNETT: He sounds like a professor to me.
WOLFE: This is a professor, right.
A professor at Boston College where David McCullough gave a commencement address.
WOLFE: Last year to this exact theme. I would like to disagree with him, but do I find it hard to do so. My students don't know enough about history. They get centuries wrong, they get names wrong. They get just about everything wrong.
But just a couple caveats. I think it's a serious question and you're right, Bill, that if we don't know enough about our country, we really can't love it but the caveat. The students these days are wonderful. They're not dumb. They're incredibly curious, they're intelligent, they want to learn. It's a crying shame that they haven't because they're so desperate for it.
Other countries just like us talk to people in France, talk to people in Germany, the same thing. They don't know their history wherever we are. So whatever the problem is, it seems to be a global problem.
I try to find answers for everything. I have no answer whatsoever for this one.
WOLFE: I don't know how it happened.
BENNETT: I tried -- I wrote two books and one of my reasons for writing the books is I thought most of the books were just so deadly dull and this is the most interesting story in the history of the world, the story of America.
HOLMES: I would agree with that but I think even -- more worrisome and troubling problem is that people don't know their rights and they don't know what are the basic philosophical foundations of American democracy.
And they don't know that your rights as envisioned by our founding fathers are God given. I've had these debates that, you know, that this comes from the government. Well, this is a fundamental misunderstanding. So you know, you get names and dates and presidents wrong, but if you just -- if you get the fundamentals of American democracy wrong, I mean I think that's really dangerous.
WALDMAN: Another example of the problem here relates to the bailout. Someone came in to my office the other day and I have covers from "Newsweek" magazine where I used to work as a going away present.
One cover was the S&L catastrophe. Right next to it was the real estate collapse. Side by side, 1990. And they -- and they looked at it and thought was that -- did that just happen? No. Something very similar happened in 1990. It made them think, you know, they should stop trying to teach business ethics in business school and teach business history, because a lot of this is just repeating things we -- that happened before, but we forgot.
BENNETT: And, again, I just want to say, as somebody who just immersed himself in it again, it's a remarkable story. You know, I mean, I still think there's magic to once upon a time. But when you tell the story of this country and, you know, it's still amazing young country, it's fascinating.
Also, isn't it this irony that adults read history. David McCullough's books sell like crazy. Lots of other stories and books sell. You know, undaunted courage...
HOLMES: HBO did a (INAUDIBLE)
BENNETT: HBO, the History Channel is successful.
BENNETT: What are we getting wrong here? How do we fix it?
GELERNTER: There are 2.5 million children being home schooled, something like that, and the figure was a million maybe 10 years ago. Parents are firing the schools. They know that the schools are failing.
There was a report on it during the Reagan administration that the mediocrity of our schools, 1983, that was a long time ago. Are we doing any better? No.
BENNETT: All right.
WALDMAN: I think part of it has always been emphasized competitiveness as the only reason for education.
WALDMAN: So we talk about math, science and English, and that's been where the whole national conversation has been about, not history.
BENNETT: Instead of belong to go a country.
Are you hopeful for America, yes or no?
BENNETT: OK. Agreement at the end.
Folks, thanks very much. I'll be back with a comment or two, a thought or two about this discussion.
Thanks to this distinguished panel. It's Bill Bennett, BEYOND POLITICS.
BENNETT: We talked about a lot of topics today. As you can see, we're not always in agreement. But the talk, as you saw, was always similar.
Let's bear that in mind in highly charged political season. As to the substance, people look at America and they see both blessings and blemishes. We are reminded again of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's question.
Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? No, I'm not, he answered. Find me a better one.
Have we done great things? Yes, we have. Have we committed atrocities? Yes, indeed. How did our people find out about that? By watching television, by reading the newspapers, and by learning history.
On balance, Moynihan said we are the most hopeful set of relations the world has ever seen. Know, too, folks, that all our panelists concluded with a strong yes about being hopeful about America.
So am I. But we have a lot of work to do. And some of it involves thinking and talking with candor, intelligence and good will.
I'm Bill Bennett. I'll be back on the radio Monday. And I'll be back here next weekend. Thanks for watching.