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Impatience Proves a Virtue for 'Czar' William Bennett

September 03, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Timing isn't everything in the book business, but it sure does help.

Take the case of William J. Bennett's "The Death of Outrage," subtitled "Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals."

The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, was planning to print about 40,000 copies of the new book--a respectable number for a nonfiction title, but much smaller than one might expect for something by the prominent Republican and editor of "The Book of Virtues." That book, from 1993, has 2.8 million copies in print between its Simon & Schuster hardcover and Touchstone paperback editions. A more recent Bennett anthology, "Our Sacred Honor" (to be reissued shortly by Touchstone as "The Spirit of America"), will have 240,000 copies in print.

But booksellers seemed loath to place large orders for Bennett's clarion call to repudiate Clinton. After all, polls continue to show that people give the president high marks for the job he is doing, even if they do have a much dimmer view of his personal character.

However, after the president went on national television Aug. 17 to make his extraordinary and belated admission of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Bennett appeared on a trifecta of shows--CNN's "Larry King Live," NBC's "Today" and NBC's "Meet the Press"--and explained why he believes Clinton should resign. In the hot medium of television, the former drug czar and Secretary of Education was effectively cool in his outrage. "How much more embarrassment and shame does [Clinton] have to heap on this country?" he asked.

Suddenly "The Death of Outrage" (which did not arrive in stores until this week) was being ordered in large numbers by customers of the two leading online booksellers. This week, it ranked No. 8 at Amazon.com and No. 5 at BarnesandNoble.com.

The Free Press has gone back to press in order to meet rising demand and now is distributing 175,000 copies -- more than four times the original plan. And this is before Bennett makes scheduled return appearances on the three TV shows he already has visited, and before he no doubt will be seen all over the dial once Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr finally gives the report of his investigation to the House.

True, shipping many copies of a book to stores and selling them to customers are two different things. There was a surge of interest in another Free Press title, Howard Kurtz's "Spin Cycle," after the Lewinsky story broke in January. The Washington Post reporter's book about White House damage-control went directly to the national best-seller lists, its in-print total rocketing to more than 150,000 copies. But by May the publisher was offering credits to booksellers so that they might offer the $25 book at half-price--a familiar tactic when printings have outpaced reader demand.

In Bennett's case, not only does he bring his conservative reputation and media visibility to bear, but his 154-page book arrives in the absence of any other prominent hardcover addressing a mess that may get worse (after the Starr report) before it fades away.

Bennett said Tuesday that he started writing in late May--only four months ago. He had become riled because the widely televised rationalizations of Clinton loyalists such as James Carville, Director of Communications Ann Lewis and former White House counsel Lanny Davis "were being picked up by Main Street," as reflected in the opinion polls.

Bennett said he wanted to direct his book "to the troubled"--those who privately believe there's something wrong with Clinton's conduct and the defenses presented on his behalf, such as the idea that it's a private matter, or inconsequential when compared to economic matters. Bennett's format in "The Death of Outrage" is to raise and then counter each of these defenses. He leaves an angry sound bite on each page.

He writes: "What have been revealed, through this scandal and others, are the worst elements of Bill Clinton's private and public character: reckless and irresponsible private behavior; habitual lying; abuse of power. Bill Clinton is a reproach. He has defiled the office of the presidency of the United States."

To those who say the country should move on, that presidential performance and a strong economy matter more than lying about sex under oath, Bennett writes: "These arguments define us down; they assume a lower common denominator of behavior and leadership than we Americans ought to accept. And if we do accept it, we will have committed an unthinking act of moral and intellectual disarmament."

Bennett makes clear in his book that he remains a critic of the law that allows for an office of independent counsel, saying that the counsel "is for all intents and purposes accountable to no one." But he repeatedly observes that Starr's probe was authorized by Clinton's own attorney general and is, he believes, looking into "credible allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice."

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