WASHINGTON — William J. Bennett, the first director of the nation's war on drugs, went out with a bang Thursday, calling one congressional critic "a gas bag" and labeling the drug-plagued District of Columbia "a basket case."
President Bush, in accepting Bennett's resignation at the White House, praised his leadership in the war against drugs and said that the nation "is on the road to victory" in that war.
"Both Bill and I are encouraged by recent, very promising signs that suggest the drug problem is diminishing, not only in the suburbs but in the cities as well," Bush said.
Bennett predicted that within five years the Administration will meet its goal of reducing drug abuse by 50%. "The reality is clear: This country is beginning to break its interest and habit on drugs," he said.
Last year, Bennett, director of the Office of National Drug Policy, laid out a strategy that called for beefing up law enforcement and using the military to cut the supply of drugs crossing the nation's borders.
Critics said Thursday that Bennett, whose resignation is effective at the end of November, was leaving too soon to take credit for any changes in drug use. Surveys have shown casual drug use declining for several years.
"I think he brought more coherence and cooperation to the drug efforts at the federal and state levels," said George Washington University law professor Gerald Caplan, who serves on an American Bar Assn. committee on drugs.
"But I also think he manipulated the issue politically and proclaimed success prematurely. He should have said straight out (that) this is going to be a very long struggle, and the costs would be high."
On Capitol Hill, the reaction to Bennett's departure was mixed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) praised Bennett, saying that he "performed with impressive intellect and success."
But Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of a House subcommittee on narcotics abuse, called the Bush Administration's anti-drug effort "a colossal failure." He denounced Bennett for using his office "as a bull (sic) pulpit" to preach against decline of families and inner cities.
"Mr. Rangel is a gas bag," Bennett retorted when told of the congressman's comments. "He has nothing to do with drug policy."
Bennett blamed Washington Mayor Marion Barry, a convicted cocaine abuser, for making the drug crisis even worse in the nation's capital. Last year, Bennett met with Barry to discuss drugs in the city.
"I suspected that his interest in the topic was different from mine," Bennett said, "and we were going to get less than 100% cooperation."
When asked his reaction to Barry's six-month prison sentence, Bennett replied: "Justice."
Under former President Ronald Reagan, Bennett made a name for himself as an outspoken secretary of education. He delighted in attacking university presidents, congressional Democrats and the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers' union.
When Bush took office in 1989, Bennett volunteered to head the new Office of Drug Abuse Policy.
Bennett, 47, disputed accounts that he was leaving his post after less than two years because he was bored, restless, eager to run for political office or frightened by threats against him and his family.
"I'm not the stampeded-out-of-town type," he said.
When pressed on why he was quitting, Bennett said only that he is taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization.