The Life and Times of William Bennett
by Barrett Brown, Sun May 25, 2008 at 08:17:05 AM EDT
Occasionally, a book is best reviewed more than a decade after it's been written. William Bennett's The De-Valuing of America, published in the otherwise uneventful year of 1992, is such a book.
To judge from the dust jacket review blurbs, Bennett's first foray into the literary genre of the ex-politico memoir - traditionally a haphazard mash-up of policy suggestions, political narrative, and personal musings - appears to have been a well-received one. Rush Limbaugh calls the book "inspiring." Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America (and, tellingly, wife of Tim LaHaye, brainchild of the Left Behind empire) gushes that "[h]is keen strategies help equip all of us involved in the accelerated warfare for the very heart and soul of America's children." And the Wall Street Journal refers to Bennett as "Washington's most interesting public figure," apparently intending this as a compliment.
But praise from allies is like a mother's love. More surprising is the dust jacket quote from The New York Times, of all things, informing us that Bennett "brings refreshing intelligence and common sense to a debate long dominated by ignorance and confusion." This strikes me as a nice way of saying that Bennett is better educated than most of the people who believe the things that he believes.
Whether or not this is what the Times meant, it's certainly the case. Bennett is fairly unusual among cultural conservatives in that his background is in academia in general and liberal arts in particular, a status that's somewhat comparable to being a cultural liberal whose background is in truck driving in general and the transport of veal calves in particular. And just as our hypothetical cultural liberal might have a few choice words for the veal calf industry, Bennett is none too fond of modern American academia, certain members of which he groups together with a cadre of unspecified media heavies and then categories under the designation of "elites." These elites, as Bennett informs us early on, derive particular satisfaction from criticizing the beliefs and practices of "the American people," a term he uses throughout the course of the book and which, from the context in which it invariably comes up, appears to mean "people who agree with William Bennett." Now, the elites are motivated in their criticisms not by any legitimate concerns they may have with "the American people," who are presumably beyond criticism by virtue of being people who live in America, but rather by a desire for status. The liberal elites "hope to achieve reputations, among other elites especially, for being original, deep, thoughtful, and unconventional," we're told by Bennett, who, being a spirit entity from Neptune and composed of pure energy, lacks the sort of universal mammalian regard for one's own reputation with which the rest of are unfortunately cursed.
Bennett summarizes the elites thusly: "Odi profanum vulgus ('I hate the vulgar crowd') is a fitting slogan." It's an expansive sort of hypocrisy that can criticize others for desiring to be considered "deep" and then, in the very next sentence, throw out an unnecessary Latin phrase so that it may then be explained to the reader what the phrase means. But then, Bennett is an expansive fellow. We must give him that.
Bennett is so disdainful of the elite mentality that, in a show of solidarity with the common man, he limits his writing style to that of an awkward seventh grader who's still getting the hang of sentence parsing. "At a gathering of the elite, an often performed ritual is to mention a derided object or individual, followed by a superior laugh and roll of the eyes," he explains to us with some effort.
The "derisive" nature of those incorrigible elites seems to be a sticking point. In the course of his overarching indictment, Bennett denounces them chiefly as "critics of American practices." This is an odd enough thing to take issue with in and of itself; surely any society has practices that are worthy of criticism, even if that society happens to be one's own. But such a denunciation is doubly odd when one remembers that Bennett himself has spent a good portion of his own career as a "critic of American practices." The use of drugs, for instance, is certainly an "American practice," this being a pursuit that Americans practice on a regular basis. And Bennett has been quite famously critical of this "American practice." But whereas the "elites" are content to simply study and sneer when they find something about the American character of which they don't particularly approve, Bennett goes a step further and actually seeks out political appointments that will allow him to take an active role in putting "American practice" practitioners in prison.
In 1988, a few months after resigning from his position as secretary of education under Reagan, Bennett lobbied for the newly-created position of drug czar under incoming President Bush. In the fourth chapter of De-Valuing, entitled "The Battle to Save Our Kids from Drugs," the reader is treated to both the behind-the-scenes jockeying and subsequent birth pains, all in excruciating detail.
"Things got off to a rocky start," Bennett notes, "at least as far as some outside observers were concerned." Actually, things got off to a rocky start by Bennett's own admission; the "outside observers" remark is simply an excuse to attack the press by implying that the media narrative of the time was somehow inaccurate. But it plainly was not; Bennett himself has just spent an entire page describing how Bush was reluctant to take him on, and in the very next sentence after the "rocky start" comment, he points out that he wasn't invited to the nascent administration's first cabinet meeting, further noting that Bush refused to include Bennett in the cabinet at all. Thus Bennett is essentially saying, "A is true, but the press wrongly reported A, and also, A is true." An odd duck, that Bennett. An odd, disingenuous duck.
Bennett claims not to have been fazed by the cabinet snubbing. "I was not particularly distressed at this turn of events; I had my fill of cabinet sessions while I was secretary of education." Bennett had never wanted that sort of prestige, and besides, he'd already had it.
After going to great lengths to show the reader how nonchalant he'd been about his lack of cabinet-level status and how unconcerned he was regarding what everyone might say about this, Bennett goes on to relate what everyone was saying about this, treating us to several old media blurbs on the subject including one from U.S. News and World Report indicating that he might "slowly sink into bureaucratic quicksand and be rendered irrelevant." On the contrary, Bennett tells us, "Sinking into bureaucratic quicksand and being rendered irrelevant was, frankly, never much of a concern of mine." He then goes on to explain why it was a concern of his that he might sink into bureaucratic quicksand and be rendered irrelevant: "Here I had little direct authority, no ability to dispense government grants, a 100-person staff (infinitesimal by Washington standards)... There were some inherent, potentially debilitating, institutional weaknesses that I had to overcome." Many people contradict themselves now and again, but William Bennett manages to do so in perfect ABAB stanza.
Bennett was so innately drawn to the role of drug czar that he began practicing for it well before the position even existed. In De-Valuing, Bennett describes his first big bust, pulled off in his capacity as a dorm administrator while studying at Harvard and which involved two students caught selling drugs out of their room. Bennett triumphantly details how the two pushers feared that Bennett might physically harm them, though he reports having been equally disappointed that Harvard failed to punish the students to his own specifications - which is to say, expulsion and criminal prosecution.
This slash-and-burn approach to illegal drug use would become a familiar theme. Upon taking over as secretary of education under Reagan, one of Bennett's first tasks seems to have been getting rid of all those excess teachers that had for so long been plaguing the nation's educational system. "Early in my tenure," he writes, "I contacted the heads of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, urging them to adopt a policy of requiring teachers using drugs to resign." This was more than just a clever attempt to cut art and music programs out of the local school budgets; in a 1986 speech given in Tennessee, Bennett explained his reasoning: "They should be drug-free, not for reasons of national security, but for reasons of setting an example." It's not entirely clear what he meant by this; presumably, there were already policies in place that would have led to the firing of any teacher caught lighting up a spliff in fourth period English. What Bennett seemed to be calling for was a policy that would have either required the unprecedented monitoring of adult private lives, or instead be totally meaningless - and thus it would have served as a great metaphor for U.S. anti-drug policy in general, and thus also as a great teaching aide for our hypothetical fourth period English class when it came time to cover poetic constructs.
The president of the Metro Nashville Education Association wasn't buying. "Teachers should be careful of their actions in front of the student, but teachers are still part of society," he responded in a statement. "It's unrealistic for teachers to be so different. Substance abuse is an illness and should be treated as such. No group is going to be 100 percent clean, be it chiefs of police, ministers or teachers." Bennett's aside to us: "Here again was an example of the teachers' union getting in the way of sound reform, this time because of a startling lack of moral clarity or moral courage," which is to say that the teacher's union didn't want teachers to automatically lose their jobs for issues unrelated to their teaching.
But the nation's educational ills wouldn't be solved just by getting rid of teachers, of course; the kids would have to be gotten rid of, too. Upon becoming drug czar, Bennett fought to implement a national policy whereby any student found to have come in contact with any drugs in any manner whatsoever would be automatically expelled from school. Between the crusade against teachers and the crusade against students, Bennett may have really hit upon something here. After all, most problems that a school faces can be easily solved by just getting rid of all the people associated with it, and thus this would be a fantastic set of policies if the purpose of a school is to simply exist as a pretty building, rather than to educate children, a good portion of whom would have been eligible for expulsion if Bennett had gotten his way.
Luckily for those students, he didn't. Testifying before the House Committee on Idiotic Policy Implementations (or something like that), Bennett came up against some resistance from the always energetic New York Representative Charlie Rangel. During a contentious back-and-forth over Bennett's proposed mandatory expulsion policy, Rangel expressed some reservations about the idea of denying education to students caught with drugs. Though Rangel's preferred policy is here unreported and thus left to our imagination, Bennett summarizes it for us thusly: "I think what Rangel hoped for from us was something less severe; a course of instruction, a drug-education program, lectures, slides, and tapes - in short, a magic bullet that would inoculate the young from ever using drugs." Which is to say that Rangel wanted a series of measures in place that would seek to discourage and reduce drug use among students, whereas Bennett wanted a single, forceful measure that would allegedly solve the problem in one fell swoop - in short, a magic bullet. Wait a second.
Okay, so Bennett doesn't seem to know what the term "magic bullet" means. That's understandable; I myself used to have trouble with the term "ruled out." When it was said that "police have ruled out the possibility of foul play," I wasn't sure if that meant that the police had spread the possibility out on the table to get a better look at it, or rather that they'd thrown it out so that it wasn't really something they were still considering as a possibility. But that was when I was, like, twelve.
Luckily, Bennett does a slightly better job of explaining the "moral clarity" of his position in a down-paragraph metaphor. "Of course we want to teach children not to play with matches. But if a house is burning, we've got to put out the fire - and we've got to grab matches out of some hands before they start any more fires." Actually, this is a terrible metaphor, unless, of course, he meant to add, "and then we've got to throw the little bastards out on the street." He is, after all, talking about a mandatory expulsion policy, not a "taking drugs out of some hands before they use any more drugs" policy, which is what the schools have always had.
If Bennett's use of metaphors and common English terminology leaves something to be desired, his use of supporting evidence is atrocious. Having just firmly established his position that zero-tolerance, one-strike-you're-out policies are totally the way to go, he attempts to illustrate the point with an anecdote. This is a reasonable enough thing to do; anecdotal evidence is a kind of evidence, after all, even if it's often countered by contrary anecdotal evidence, and is thus not all that useful as a policymaking tool. But whereas you or I might try to use a piece of anecdotal evidence that lends weight to our position, Bennett does something quite a bit more unconventional - he uses a piece of anecdotal evidence that runs contrary to his own position, apparently without even realizing it.
In discussing a Miami school that appears to have steered clear of the drug menace and which he describes as an example of his "principle in action," Bennett notes the school's drug policy: "The first time a student is caught using drugs, he must enroll in a drug-intervention or private rehabilitation program - or, depending on the severity of the infraction, he may face suspension. Subsequent infractions lead to suspension and possible expulsion from school. If a student is caught dealing drugs, he is turned over to a police agency and faces either suspension or expulsion from school." Which is to say that, in this particular high school, students caught with drugs aren't necessarily suspended from school, much less expelled (and are in fact enrolled in what sounds very much like one of Charlie Rangel's strangely multifaceted "magic bullet" programs of the sort to which Bennett was opposed just fifteen seconds ago, back when it was convenient for Bennett to feel that way), and the possibility of expulsion doesn't even arise unless the student is caught several times, while even those found to be actually dealing drugs aren't automatically expelled, either. This is the example that Bennett has chosen to use in order to illustrate for us how his preferred policy of automatic expulsion for all levels of drug use could be used to improve the nation's public schools. Again, just to be clear, here's what Bennett is saying: "I think schools should do A. Here's a great school that does B. Isn't it swell how doing A helped that school become great?"
In addition to mass expulsions, bad metaphors, the misuse of anecdotal evidence, and the butchering of English idioms, Bennett's inherent sense of moral clarity also called for large, theatrical explosions. During the Reagan administration, the U.S. military was already doing plenty of this by way of its air bombing campaign in Bolivia, but it takes more than a few bombs to please Bennett. After being told that nine planes were currently being used for this purpose, and that a minimum of 15 would be needed to eradicate Bolivian coca production for a year, Bennett wanted to know how many planes were available. A Defense Department official told him that this was classified information, which we can imagine probably pissed Bennett off quite a bit. Then he was told that an increase in American military planes dropping an increase in American bombs on an increase of Latin American peasants might lead to an increase in anti-American sentiment in an already volatile region, particularly if those American planes were clearly marked as being American.
"Then paint the face of Daniel Ortega [the head of the communist government in Nicaragua] on them," Bennett claims to have replied, once again exhibiting his moral clarity. After all, why just kill Bolivians when you can lie to them, too? To be fair, though, Bennett probably didn't mean this as a serious proposal; rather, it appears that he includes the exchange here simply in order to give the reader a taste of the gruff, take-no-prisoners wit to which his colleagues were no doubt treated on a daily basis.
Bennett's unusually hands-on approach to the drug war wasn't just limited to sitting around in Washington and second-guessing the military; Bennett writes extensively about his drug czar-era experience on the "front lines" of major urban areas, where he undertook nifty tours of crack house raids and was thus in a position to second-guess the police, too. In Detroit, Bennett encounters a beat cop whose forays into the drug war are presumably more professional than touristy, and who at some point summarized the problem by asking Bennett, "Why should a kid earn four bucks an hour at McDonald's when he can make two or three hundred dollars a night working drugs?"
"For a lot of reasons," Bennett replies. Instead of listing those reasons, though, Bennett goes on to explain to the reader how the beat cop in question had been unwittingly brainwashed: "The police officer had picked up this line of reasoning from the media." A bit later: "Not surprisingly, a lot of youngsters picked up on this argument." The implication, made on the basis not of evidence but rather of inane conjecture fueled by convenient media hatred, is that the desirability of illegal, high-profit activities over legal, low-profit activities is something that "the media" had to come up with, after which it was duly "picked up on" by hapless Americans (of whom Bennett famously hates to be critical unless it suddenly becomes convenient to do so). This is why smuggling had never occurred in human history until 1851, when the New York Times came into existence, shortly after which the term "smuggling" had to be invented, presumably by the New York Times.
According to Bennett, "the media" came up with all of this due to some sort of inherent racism; in the course of building on his argument, he claims that the four-bucks-at-McDonalds versus three-hundred-bucks-selling-drugs meme is some sort of slur against American blacks. "If people think poor black children aren't capable of moral responsibility, they should say so," Bennett writes in response to his unspecified adversaries. "I think otherwise. I know they are capable of it."
This would be a very lovely sentiment if it wasn't an outright lie, intended to paint those who sympathize with (or excuse) black Americans as racial determinists, while at the same time depicting Bennett himself as a champion of colorblindness. Nor do we need to simply assume this on the basis of the drug czar's overall taste for the disingenuous turn of phrase; Bennett made his position quite clear during a 2006 broadcast of his syndicated radio program.
In the course of a general discussion on demographic arguments put forth in the influential book Freakonomics, Bennett took a call from a fellow who noted that the practice of abortion had probably robbed the federal government of some large chunk of taxable income in the years since Roe v. Wade. Bennett countered by noting that this particular argument wasn't necessarily a useful criticism of abortion, and further explained, "But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could - if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky."
Unsurprisingly, this particular incident led to criticism from some quarters, and so Bennett released the following statement in his own defense: "A thought experiment about public policy, on national radio, should not have received the condemnations it has. Anyone paying attention to this debate should be offended by those who have selectively quoted me, distorted my meaning, and taken out of context the dialog I engaged in this week. Such distortions from 'leaders' of organizations and parties is a disgrace not only to the organizations and institutions they serve, but to the First Amendment." The funny thing about this - or, rather, one of the funny things - is that one of these "'leaders'" who had allegedly become a "disgrace not only to the organizations and institutions they serve, but to the First Amendment" as well, was none other than President George W. Bush, who had released a statement calling Bennett's comments "not appropriate." And thus it was that, by simply criticizing something that Bennett had said, the president had finally managed to do something to attract his moral outrage.
In Bennett's defense, his comments had indeed been "a thought experiment about public policy," and not a serious proposal to abort black fetuses. Bennett is not only a staunch opponent of abortion, but is also, in his own, confused way, a humane sort of guy. On the other hand, "in Bennett's defense" might be a poor choice of words on my part, because no serious commentator was claiming that this was the case, and thus Bennett need not be defended from charges that never existed. Bennett chose to take issue with a largely non-existent, red herring set of criticisms in order to avoid having to defend his unambiguous statement to the effect that aborting the fetuses of the nation's black population would result in a decrease in the crime rate.
Aside from illustrating Bennett's tendency towards intellectual dishonesty when defending himself, the aborting black babies comment also illustrates Bennett's similar rate of intellectual dishonesty when attacking others. A man capable of criticizing his opponents for supposedly operating under the assumption that "poor black children aren't capable of moral responsibility" while simultaneously believing that "you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down" is a man who is clearly not debating in good faith, but rather in an effort to score cheap points. Whereas many of Bennett's obvious intellectual contradictions may be written off as the accidental collisions of a disorganized and mediocre mind, this particular fender-bender can be considered nothing less than intentional, malicious dishonesty, in apparent service to some higher Truth for which lesser, mundane, run-of-the-mill truths are only accessories, to be discarded when inconveniently cumbersome. One might even be tempted to adopt a melancholy attitude regarding the fellow, wondering why a citizen who might otherwise have contributed to his nation's public life has instead seen fit to make himself into yet another partisan hack. On the other hand, the guy doesn't even know what a "magic bullet" is, so to hell with him.
This is not to imply that Bennett is entirely useless, of course. I did learn a few things from his book. Did you know that Prohibition was a resounding success? Neither did I. Actually, I still don't, because it's not true. So, I guess what I really learned is that some people still think that Prohibition was a resounding success, and that at least one of these people has gone on to help shape American drug policy.
During a wider discussion on the merits of federal fiddlin', Bennett drops the following bombshell, almost as an aside: "One of the clear lessons of Prohibition is that when we had laws against alcohol, there was less consumption of alcohol, less alcohol-related disease, fewer drunken brawls, and a lot less public drunkenness. And, contrary to myth, there is no evidence that Prohibition caused big increases in crime."
This is a pretty incredible statement to just throw into a book without any supporting evidence. Bennett hasn't just expressed an opinion on an ambiguous topic, like, "Gee, the old days sure were swell" or "Today's Japanese role-playing games are all flash and no substance" or something like that. Rather, Bennett has made several statements of alleged fact which can be easily verified or shot down by a few minutes of research. But Bennett didn't bother to research it, and I know this because the federal government has a tendency to keep records, and the records prove Bennett wrong.
Less "alcohol-related disease?" In 1926, a number of witnesses testified before the House Judiciary Committee regarding the ongoing effects of Prohibition; several New York State asylum officials noted that the number of patients suffering from alcohol-related dementia had increased by 1000 percent since 1920, the year after Prohibition had gone into effect. Also in 1920, deaths from undiluted alcohol consumption in New York City stood at 84. In 1927, with Prohibition in full swing, that number had swelled to 719.
But those are just snapshots in time. A look at the larger picture shows Bennett to be not just kind of wrong, but entirely and unambiguously wrong about every single thing he's just said.
In 1991 the Cato Institute commissioned a retroactive Prohibition study by Mark Thornton, the O.P. Alford III Assistant Professor of Economics at Auburn University. Citing hard data gleaned mostly from governmental records, Thornton concluded that Prohibition "was a miserable failure on all counts."
Despite Bennett's assertion that "when we had laws against alcohol, there was less consumption of alcohol [italics his]," a cursory glance at the federal government's own data shows that there was not [italics mine, thank you very much]. Now, per capita consumption did indeed fall dramatically from 1919 to 1920, but then increased far more dramatically from 1920 to 1922 - after which it continued to increase well beyond pre-Prohibition levels. So, when Bennett says that "there was less consumption of alcohol," he's right about a single one-year period, but wrong about the next dozen or so years - or, to put it another way, he's entirely wrong. If I decided to reduce my drinking for a week, and I drank quite a bit less than usual on Monday but then drank the same amount I usually do on Tuesday and then drank more than I usually do on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and if the average alcohol consumption on my part during that week was much higher than my average alcohol consumption on the previous week, then one could hardly say that "there was less consumption of alcohol" in my apartment that week. Or, rather, one could say that, but one would be wrong. In this case, though, one could be excused for being wrong, because I don't usually keep exact records on my alcohol consumption, and neither does the federal government (I think). But in the case of Prohibition, there is no excuse for ignorance, and even less for spreading it around.
Not only did alcohol consumption not decrease during Prohibition, but the American taxpayer was now paying quite a bit of extra coin to enforce the decrease in alcohol consumption that they were now not getting. From 1919 to 1922 - a period which, as mentioned above, saw an overall increase in alcohol consumption - the budget for the Bureau of Prohibition was tripled. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard was now spending 13 million dollars a year, Customs was blowing all kinds of cash, and the state and local governments which had been stuck with the majority of enforcement issues were throwing away untold amounts of money to boot.
Beyond the easily calculable nickel-and-dime costs of running an unsuccessful nanny state boondoggle, the American citizen was being screwed on other fronts, too. Unlike those umbrella-twirling, petticoat-clad temperance harpies of the time (and their equally insufferable apologists of the present day), Thornton considers other social costs of a massive government ban on non-coercive behavior. Of the alcohol consumed under Prohibition, hard liquor made a jump as a percentage of total alcohol sales that had not been seen before, that has not been seen since, and that will probably never be seen again. The sudden ascendancy of whiskey over beer can be easily explained (and could have easily been predicted): if one is smuggling something above the law or consuming it on the sly, it makes more sense to smuggle or consume concentrated versions of the product in question than to deal with larger, more diluted concoctions. A similar phenomenon occurred in the cocaine trade under William Bennett's watch as drug czar.
So alcohol consumption was up, and the alcohol being drunk was now of the harder, more brawl-inducing variety. But what about the savings? The aforementioned busybodies in the petticoats had predicted great social gains for Americans - money spent on alcohol would now go to milk for babies, life insurance, and, presumably, magical unicorns that grant you three wishes. Of course, this didn't turn out to be the case. Not only was alcohol consumption up, but records show that people were now paying more for it, too. Of course, they were also paying higher taxes to aid in the government's all-out attempt to repeal the law of supply and demand. And don't even think about approaching one of those unicorns to wish for more wishes. That's against the rules.
What about crime? Apparently, there are some wacky rumors going around to the effect that crime actually went up during Prohibition. But Bennett clearly told us that "contrary to myth, there is no evidence that Prohibition caused big increases in crime."
Pardon my French, but le gros homme possède la sottise d'un enfant humain et la teneur en graisse d'un bébé d'éléphant. And if you'll indulge me further by pardoning my harsh language, Bennett is so full of horse shit on this one that he could fertilize every bombed-out coca field from the Yucatan to Bolivia. The idea that "Prohibition caused big increases in crime" is not so much a myth as it is a verifiable fact. Again, believe it or not, the feds tend to keep records on such things, and again, believe it or totally believe it, Bennett has failed to consult these records before providing his sage commentary on the subject.
In large cities, for instance, the homicide rate jumped from 5.6 per 100,000 residents in the first decade of the 20th century to 8.4 in the second, during which time 25 states passed their own localized Prohibition laws in addition to the federal government's implementation of the Harris Narcotics Act, which in turn paved the way for the then-nascent drug war. And in the third decade, during which Prohibition was the law of the land not just in rural states governed by puritanical yahoos but in every state of the union, that number jumped to 10 per 100,000. Meanwhile, the rates for other serious crimes increased on a per capita basis by similar leaps and bounds. This, despite an environment of booming prosperity for which the twenties are known to this day.
Now, a particularly stubborn statist of the William Bennett school of disingenuous argumentation might try to counter by claiming that this increase in serious crime could have been attributable to other factors, such as increased immigration; Bennett himself might be tempted to remark that things would have been different if only we had aborted every Italian baby in the country or something like that. But this hypothetical counter-argument would not hold up, because the crime rate continued to soar until 1933, when it saw a sudden and dramatic decline.
1933, of course, was the year when Prohibition was repealed.
So, William Bennett to the contrary, Prohibition did indeed lead to "big increases in crime." But Bennett is incapable of recognizing this, because he's already made up his mind. After all, Bennett advocates the federalization of private conduct, and, as the nation's first drug czar, acted to implement this vision. And because Bennett is a possessor of both "moral clarity" and "moral courage," his views must be both morally clear and morally courageous. And because America's failed experiment with Prohibition was an early and dramatic example of the federalization of private conduct, and thus an early version of Bennett's chosen ideology, Prohibition must have logically been a success, rather than a failure.
Indeed, Bennett was enthusiastic about the possibility of replicating the glorious Cultural Revolution of Prohibition. "This is one issue, Mr. President, where I, a conservative Republican, feel comfortable in advocating a strong federal role," Bennett reports telling Bush senior in 1988. Putting aside the question of whether or not this is how Bennett really talks - and if so, he's certainly more eloquent in private than he is in public - this is a telling remark, and it's unfortunate that Bennett doesn't explain why a strong federal role would be merited here and not elsewhere. Something about the criminalization of private conduct scratches an itch that social assistance programs just can't seem to reach.
"Often it seems that any idea that fits the zeitgeist, that can be linked to a 'need' - anyone's need, anywhere, anytime - is funded," he writes at one point. "Frequently, it is funded at the costs of hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars without the slightest regard to whether the program will work, whether it will be held accountable, whether it is appropriate for the federal government to fund it, or whether it is something people can or ought to do for themselves." It does not occur to Bennett that he has just described the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Elsewhere: "I know of no other group in America that is more cocksure of its right to full entitlement to the United States Treasury than the leadership of higher education." Bennett must believe the drug war to be funded by voluntary subscription and perhaps further offset by vouchers, and seems to have seen nothing "cocksure" in demanding that the military bomb more of Bolivia at his command. And during his no doubt Marcus Aurelius-inspired treatise on the education of children found elsewhere in the book, he tells us that if "we want them to know about respect for the law, they should understand why Socrates told Crito: 'No, I submit to the decree of Athens.'" Perhaps they should also understand why Socrates was sentenced to death by the mob in the first place. The answer, of course, is that he was found guilty of "corrupting the youth."
Like the Athenian mob, Bennett is also opposed to the corruption of the youth by way of such things as marijuana and favors the death penalty for those found guilty of it. At one point in the book, he recalls an appearance on Larry King Live when a caller suggested that drug dealers be beheaded. The moral clarity of the proposal seems to have excited Bennett. "What the caller suggests is morally plausible. Legally, it's difficult... morally, I don't have any problem with it." But the moral plausibility of this was, as usual, lost on the nation's intellectuals while being perfectly understood by the common folk, who adore their drug czar (and it is also understood by the totalitarian Chinese, who have been executing drug dealers for quite a while, no doubt due to the inherent moral clarity of its communist dictatorship). "Many of the elites ridiculed my opinion. But it resonated with the American people because they knew what drugs were doing, and they wanted a morally proportional response." Bennett's evidence of this, seriously, is that then-chairman of the Republican National Committee Lee Atwater called him from South Carolina and reported that the people he had spoken to there seemed very keen on the idea. Meanwhile, as Bennett points out, the elites had the audacity to run headlines like "Drug Czar: Beheading Fitting" to describe an incident in which the drug czar had said that beheading is fitting. "The reaction was illustrative," he writes.
Indeed, much of the book (and much of Bennett's public career since) follows a familiar pattern. Bennett says something wacky, the "elites" criticize him for it, and then Bennett either sticks to his guns or pretends he didn't mean what he obviously meant. Weirdly, he sometimes manages to do both at the same time. Speaking to a Baptist group during his tenure as drug czar, Bennett told attendees the following: "I continue to be amazed how often people I talked to in drug treatment centers talk about drugs as the great lie, the great deception - indeed a product, one could argue, of the great deceiver, the great deceiver everyone knows. 'A lie' is what people call drugs, and many, many people in treatment have described to me their version of crack, simply calling it 'the devil.' This has come up too often, it has occurred too much, too spontaneously, too often in conversation, to be ignored."
This time, the reaction was not simply "illustrative," as had been the case with the beheading thing. Rather, "The reaction was absurd but illustrative." I should have pointed out that the Bennett Pattern described above invariably ends with Bennett describing the situation as "illustrative." Anyway, the reaction was illustrative of the media's tendency to report things that government officials say when they say something unusual, a practice to which Bennett seems to be opposed, no doubt on moral grounds. The San Francisco Chronicle story was headlined "Bennett Blames Satan for Drug Abuse." Bennett reminds us that he was simply "reporting what I had heard from people in drug treatment and speaking of drugs in a moral context," but then immediately goes on to refer to this as "my view." Nor would he have been very likely to report all of this and describe it as having "come up too often, too spontaneously, too often in conversation, to be ignored" if he didn't believe it had some sort of merit. If Bennett had, for instance, gone to a number of drug treatment centers and been told that crack was invented by the CIA under the direction of George Bush Sr. in order to exterminate the black population, which is another popular piece of theology among certain drug addicts, Bennett probably would not have gotten up in front of several hundred people and began "reporting what I had heard from people in drug treatment" and then noted that Bush Sr.'s alleged black-op narco-genocide "has come up too often, it has occurred too much, too spontaneously, too often in conversation, to be ignored," because Bennett would not have agreed with such a sentiment, or, if he did agree, he would not have said it because he would have known all of this to be true as he had in fact helped to launder the drug money by way of his casino mobster connections, and at any rate he would not find it prudent to talk about all of these things in public.
Occasionally a member of the media goes so far as to directly confront Bennett about his silly utterances. In 2006, John Roberts - the CNN anchor and thus a member of "the elite," rather than the conservative chief justice of the Supreme Court, who is presumably not a member of "the elite" - asked Bennett about something he had recently said to the effect that certain reporters should have been thrown in prison.
ROBERTS: Let's talk about your comments earlier this week about James Risen, Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times and Dana Priest of The Washington Post who won Pulitzer Prizes for their work uncovering CIA secret prisons in Europe and, as well, the NSA spying scandal. What were your listeners saying about that this morning?
BENNETT: Well, we had a lot of people weigh in. I said that I wondered whether they deserved the Pulitzer more, or actually more deserving was a subpoena or perhaps going to jail. Look, [former New York Times reporter] Judy Miller went to jail, and I don't know why we should treat these folks differently than Judy Miller, particularly, when this is --
ROBERTS: Yeah, but Judy Miller went to -- Judy Miller went to jail for contempt of court.
BENNETT: Right, well, let's see if these guys are asked --
ROBERTS: These people haven't been charged with contempt of court.
BENNETT: Well, if James Risen is asked, right, or Dana Priest is asked, "Who are your sources?" the people who gave them this information committed a crime, leaked classified information. If they are asked, and they do the same thing Judy Miller does, which I expect they would, don't you?
BENNETT: Then, they -- then, they would go to jail. Also, there's the Espionage Act.
ROBERTS: But, they -- but, they -- but they haven't been asked yet. You know, they haven't been asked yet, though.
BENNETT: We -- I don't know. If they haven't been asked yet, I assume they will. Then, you can change the tense of my remarks, but not the substance of them.
Which is to say that Bennett was asking why three people had not yet been imprisoned for crimes they might potentially commit in the future. This is a very interesting question. Similarly, one wonders why it is that Bennett has yet to be imprisoned for the triple homicide he will pull off in 2014 at the behest of a Russian mobster to whom he owes three million dollars in gambling debts, and for whom Bennett will also have been acquiring legislative favors for by way of a network of friendly congressional staffers who are mixed up in the Southeast Asian slave trade. I myself have made repeated calls about this to the FBI, where I was hung up on, and to MI5, where I was listened to politely for a few minutes and then hung up on in a very charming and understated manner.
Even while proposing more executions for drug dealers, more bombs for Bolivia, and more prison time for reporters, Bennett means well. "I always speak with good will - that is, with the hope of arriving at a conclusion we can all share," he writes. And if his style is blunt, perhaps the times demand it. "The modern age and the bearers of some of the modern age's sentiments pushed hard against me. I pushed back." Bennett will not compromise with these modern age sentiments. He is, like his church, uncompromising until compromise becomes convenient, which it often does.
There is something to be said for the holding of strict moral standards, but there is also something to be said for taking a break from this every once in a while, such as during the tail end of the Reagan administration. "I was appalled, when the Iran-Contra crisis broke out," Bennett recalls, unable to bring himself to refer to it as a scandal, "to witness how silent many people in the Reagan administration, including the cabinet, were in defense of the president. They headed for the tall grass and waited out events. The first impulse in this kind of situation should be to rally to the defense of the president." Bennett has some sort of secret reason for why this is the case which he does not choose to share with us. At any rate, the portion of the book in which he glosses over Iran-Contra is one of the very few in which he does not call for firings, expulsions, more jail time, executions, "moral clarity,""moral outrage,""moral courage,""moral plausibility," or for children to be taught why Socrates told Crito that he submits to the rule of Athens, the government of which must also have had a law against secretly selling weapons to Iran back when Iran was Persia (one could, in fact, be executed for even displaying warm feelings towards Persia at this time in the history of Athens). When Bennett takes his break from morality, we are spared from much.
Bennett does not take his break for long. "Washington at its worst can be a viscous, sick city. Nothing so captivates the Washington mind as the anticipation of a scandal or that a person in power is about to fall from grace." These words, of course, were written just before the Clinton years; otherwise they would not have been written. There was a period between 1992 and 2001 in which the viscous sickness of Washington underwent divine transubstantiation back into "moral clarity." I do not know why this is because I am neither a chemist nor a theologian, but at any rate, Clinton had been involved, not in an affair or a crisis, but in a "scandal," as Bennett accurately called it in 1998, although suddenly no longer associating its "anticipation" with "viscous sickness.""Through his tawdry, reckless, irresponsible conduct, he has plowed salt in America's civil soil," Bennett wrote of Clinton in that year. "For that, and for much else, he has rightfully earned our obloquy." I am unclear on the meaning of this last word but from context I assume that it means "moral outrage." It is, however, a shame about the salt in America's civic soil, from which neither the wheat of virtue nor the barley of justice was ever to be yielded again; the harvest was now tyranny. "We know that Mr. Clinton has invoked claims of executive privilege that are even broader than Richard Nixon's - claims few legal scholars defend."
Mr. Bennett has since taken another break from his vigilance on the subject of executive privilege, and has anyway expanded the pool of legal scholars who may be found to defend broad claims of same; January 2001 brought on another transubstantiation, a miracle of the sort upon which both Catholic and Evangelical may agree.