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COLUMN RIGHT / MICKEY EDWARDS

Fixing America From Outside the Beltway : Bill Bennett eschews a bid for the White House for a quest to restore virtue, compassion, high standards to a dispirited nation.

August 30, 1994|MICKEY EDWARDS | Mickey Edwards, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee before leaving Congress in 1992, is teaching at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and writing a column

Nobody articulates the Republican message better than Bill Bennett. Bennett--secretary of education, college president, best-selling author--fits every political strategist's blueprint for the perfect candidate: as blunt as Truman, as reflective as Wilson, as engaging as Reagan. An understandable intellectual with that rare combination of intelligence and common sense. So what's the catch?

Well, the catch is this: Bennett went off to the wilderness, contemplated his future and has come back to announce that he's not interested in running for President. Instead, he's going to write. Perhaps he will produce a television show for children. Bennett's concern is the regeneration of America.

Bennett's withdrawal has an immediate political impact: Given Jack Kemp's slow start and Colin Powell's reticence, the Republican National Committee, which has been euphoric about the disarray in the Clinton presidency, ought to consider posting a few reminders on its bulletin board. You know the ones: "There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip." "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched." Bill Clinton's doing everything he can to hand the White House and the Congress over to the opposition, but the Fat Lady is still getting dressed for the finale.

So why, given the challenge Republicans face, has Bennett decided to take a walk? Because Bennett knows that America's problems are not primarily political.

During his presidency, Jimmy Carter looked about him and proclaimed that there was in America a great malaise. This comment was quickly seized upon to illustrate that Carter was unfit for the office he had accepted. He was, after all, the President. The nation's problems, it was assumed, were solvable by the right mix of presidential vision and determination. Carter was passing the buck.

But Jimmy Carter was right.

And when Dan Quayle decried the eroding quality of the sludge produced in Hollywood, he turned out to be right, too. Today Quayle's relatively mild voice of protest is drowned out by liberal voices in the Administration and the Congress who have taken up his cause.

Two years ago, the American people lashed out at the public officials who had failed to make things better. Left and right, right and left, incumbents bit the dust. Today voters are angrier than they were before.

Terry Donahue, UCLA's football coach, was interviewed recently on a national radio program. It must be particularly difficult to coach at UCLA, the interviewer suggested; such high expectations. It's not just UCLA, Donahue said; it's much harder to coach anywhere today than it was when he became the UCLA coach 19 years ago. The public today is angrier, less forgiving, quicker to find fault.

No people in the history of the world have been as materially blessed as Americans, yet there is an emptiness, an anger. Something is missing.

Part of the problem is, in fact, political. Or at least part of the problem is subject to political solutions, even if those solutions fail to address the root causes of the problems. When the streets are unsafe, prices are high or the average citizen has to run twice as fast to stay in the same place, the people look to their government for an answer. Politicians may fight over what that answer will be, but some answer is demanded.

Nonetheless, as Bennett knows, there is a cancer beyond the reach of politics. A decline in the American Spirit, in standards, in conduct that must be addressed.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her sonnets, laid out a challenge for the Bill Bennetts who have followed her: "Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill/Is daily spun; but there exists no loom to weave it into fabric."

And in Russia, a continent and an ocean away, another poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, told us what must be done: "There can be no rebuilding/without rebuilding memory,/and without rebuilding monuments/to those who built us."

This is the call Bennett hears. He sees an America that too seldom values reflection or virtue, which hesitates to distinguish between the relative merits of effort and indolence, which demeans achievement. Bennett does not condemn those who accept a lesser standard, but he urges a higher one. Bennett would build monuments to those who built America's greatness and in so doing he would weave the wisdom of the past into a new national fabric to clothe us for the future.

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