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William J. Bennett : Manning Drug War Barricades With a 'Kick in the Pants' Style

April 29, 1990|Scott Simon | Scott Simon is host and chief correspondent of National Public Radio's Saturday news show, "Weekend Edition. " He interviewed Bennett in the director's office

WASHINGTON — William J. Bennett is advertised as being "blunt, bluff and outspoken." Yet during a nine-year career in official Washington, the National Drug Policy Director has rarely aimed his rhetoric at a target his boss--the President--was not delighted to see absorb the blow. If Bennett is the bull in the china shop, he steers clear of knocking over the high-ticket merchandise.

As Ronald Reagan's secretary of education, he criticized union teachers, who have had a tendency--depressing from the Republican perspective--to endorse national Democratic candidates. He defended cuts in student aid by suggesting the recipients could "divest" themselves of stereos, automobiles and beach vacations--an exclamation which, whatever its wisdom as a policy to cover the cost of higher education, may have been popular among thousands of parents aggravated by the escalating aspirations of their children.

Bennett is 47. He is a Washington kid, who attended the prestigious St. Anselm's, then the more roughhouse Gonzaga Catholic High School. He went to Williams College rather then a Catholic university, on advice of a college counselor who told young Bennett he ought to exercise his rebellious spirit some place where it wouldn't challenge Catholic education. He graduated in 1965, completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Texas, then spent a year teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was active in the civil-rights movement.

After acquiring another degree at Harvard, Bennett crossed the Charles River to teach and serve as an assistant to Boston University President John R. Silber, one of his professors at Texas. Bennett was known on campus as a popular professor and the fist on Silber's strong right arm--the man who would escort military recruiters into classrooms.

Bennett was 36 when he became president of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. His campaign against what he identified as permissiveness in humanities studies brought him to the attention of activists in the Reagan Administration--his was a scholarly voice enunciating some of the President's own unfootnoted suspicions of higher education.

Bennett was appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1981, then became education secretary in 1984, after the Reagan Administration said the department should be closed. But not for the first or last time, Bennett's rhetoric enlarged the role he was given--and made the department impossible to shut down.

He left Washington in the fall of 1988 to write a book, give speeches and contemplate various importunings to run for office--either a Senate seat from North Carolina or directly for President. Within three months, he was back, after letting the word circulate he was available for another round of underpaid government service.

Bennett is married, has two young children and is prominently absent from official Washington social proceedings--but is nonetheless reported by friends and observers to be the finest rock-and-roll dancer in the Bush Administration.

Question: What is your current understanding as to why people take drugs that are a danger to them?

Answer: The thing you hear most often is: "Somebody told me to try it, to give me a boost and make me feel better." That is by people's own account. What does the analysis suggest? They (drugs) are powerful; they give an intense feeling of pleasure. Once you have taken it, you want to take it again. You never quite approach that first high, but you are always trying to. It is very deceptive; it's a lie, and I have been struck by how many people in treatment have talked about it as a lie and have even personalized it and have said "It is the Devil. It's Satan. It is the great deception.". . .

And it is America--we try different things. We are experimental people; we have money; permission was given 15 or 20 years ago. This is the underbelly of liberty. . . .

When you talk to people going through treatment, what they want to get away from, as they describe it, is not the physical damage; it is what it is doing to their souls. . . . It is more material for the novelist or the poet than for the clinician.

Q: Given that understanding, how do you explain to people the logic of a Administration budget that is 70% devoted to interdiction and law enforcement, and 30% to treatment programs?

A: By first of all pointing out that there is a lot more money for everything than there was before. I will be damned if I will be criticized by any member of Congress, Republican or Democrat--it is usually Democrat--for saying insufficient funds for education and treatment when we have raised them 70% or 80%. . . . Second, the federal government has responsibilities for interdiction of drugs that no state has. We pay for all of the methods. We pay for all the work in South America, and that is expensive work.

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