Bill Bennett, former secretary of Education, drug czar, author of the Book of Virtues, and, most recently, radio man, has a new book out today, America: The Last Best Hope, the first of two volumes, which he dedicates to “the American soldier, whose fidelity, patriotism, and valor have made this land the last best hope on earth.”
Bennett took some questions on the book and related issues from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez in anticipation of release day.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What was your approach to tackling a fairly vast body of American history–“From the Age of Discovery to a World at War”–in this new book?
William J. Bennett: The first thing was to make it a ripping good story because this is the second greatest story and the best political story ever told. American history is full of sound and color and character and blood and guts and gore and high principle. And it’s all in here.
Lopez: What’s the most politically incorrect fact you present, of the sort no one else would dare?
Bennett: Muslim troubles. From the beginning. And by the beginning I mean Christopher Columbus. Radical Islam or Militant Islam was trouble for us from before day one. The European empires go west because they don’t want to deal with these guys in the east. Jefferson’s war against the Barbary pirates was taken up after more than one million Europeans had been made slaves by Muslim traders. John Adams was opposed to the war, by the way, saying prophetically that if we fought these militant Muslims we’d be fighting them forever.
Lopez: Folks might point to how we moved into America and slavery, among other historic moments, and wonder how a country with such events under its belt could be considered “The Last Best Hope.” How, sir?
Bennett: The question there is “compared to whom?” Moynihan said, “Am I embarrassed to speak for less than a perfect democracy? Not one bit. Have we done terrible things, yes we have.” But as Lino Graglia says, “In the long story of inhumanity and misery that is history, the American achievement is high, and unique.” By the way, if we are such a bad place, as many have it today (and some have always had it), why are we flooded with people who want to come here? With students, I talk about “the gates test.” I say, you want to find out whether a country is good or not, give it the gates test: when you raise the gates, which way do people run? In or out? In America, when we raise the gates, the people flood in. Even with the gates down, they flood in, as today’s headlines make plain. People all over the world have been voting for America with their feet, for a very long time.
Lopez: What can we learn from Thomas Jefferson about fighting the war on terror?
Bennett: See page 183; that there was more honor in fighting an enemy—the Barbary pirates—than in paying tribute and ransom. Sometimes you just have to fight.
Lopez: George W. Bush should count his blessings shouldn’t he, event despite Florida, Al Gore’s 36-day holdout, and the rest of it. At least he’s not RutherFraud B. Hayes.
Bennett: Yes, he should. People talk about an unprecedented poisonous environment in Washington today. There are at least a dozen precedents from our history where things were much worse. It was said of the pre-Civil War Congress, “everyone in the Congress if they did not have a gun and a knife, had two guns.” Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was almost caned to death on the floor of the Senate.
Lopez: As secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan banned wine at diplomatic receptions. Would we ever stand for such a thing again? Should Mormon presidential hopeful Mitt Romney get out in the open early on that he wouldn’t do such a thing as president?
Bennett: I don’t think we ever would stand for such a thing again; and even in the White House we will never see again the days of “Lemonade Lucy Hayes,” wife of Rutherford. When she presided at White House social functions, it was said “The water flowed like champagne.”
As for Mitt, I assume since he has spent so much time in Boston, he probably thinks beer is the third tap on a sink. But seriously, he needs to simply say what he believes; he’s done pretty well so far.
Lopez: Where in history would you send depressed conservatives right now?
Bennett: To Washington and Lincoln, and to Shakespeare who said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.” For Washington and Lincoln, none of their outcomes was certain or given. From Yorktown to Appomattox, the mode in which the inevitable comes to pass is effort. The title of my book, “The Last Best Hope,” is from Lincoln’s second message to Congress. He used that phrase when things looked far bleaker than they do today. He never lost faith in America, “this last best hope of earth.” Nor should we.
Lopez: Is there hope for Democrats in search of a vision in history?
Bennett: Sure. Try Andrew Jackson, minus the Indian removal. A guy like that with “shoot in his eye,” would be tonic for the Democrats. I don’t see that guy right now.
Lopez: Who should buy this book?
Bennett: Well, everybody, but think of it as a graduation present. It’s a perfect graduation present for a student at any level. And father’s day, father’s day, father’s day. I’d even accept it myself and be grateful.
Lopez: What’s the funniest item in your book?
Bennett: The quotes. I’ve tried to find really funny, really memorable lines. Try this for example, General Sherman said “Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. Now we stand by each other always.” Great quote. Funny. Bracing. Uplifting. How about two more in connection with Teddy Roosevelt? Joe Wheeler, an ex-confederate officer, was chasing retreating Spaniards in 1898 somewhere near San Juan Hill: “We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!” he yelled at his men. But it was former Sergeant Buck Taylor of the same war who, when later campaigning for Roosevelt, said to crowds: “He kept every promise he ever made to us, and he will to you as well. He led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter, and so will he lead you.”
Lopez: Conservatives used to want to close the Department of Education. Are we beyond that, Mr. Secretary?
Bennett: As a live issue, yes. As a question of philosophy and policy, no. Schools get better locally, not from Washington.
Lopez: Is there any hope for a smarter–history-wise–America? Perhaps you could be the Simon Cowell of American History Teacher Idol?
Bennett: I’m ready, I’m available. If asked, I will run, but I need to do some work before I appear on television in a t-shirt.
Lopez: Who’s your most surprising MVP in American history?
Bennett: Well it’s Lincoln and Washington, no surprise there. But, in my top-ten, maybe top-five, I put Frederick Douglass–a guy I didn’t know that well before. You know I don’t the think the left likes Douglass, and I don’t think the right and the center have given him his due. I hope I have.
Lopez: You seem like a natural on the radio. Did you have any idea you’d like it as much as you seem to?
Bennett: I did not have any idea I’d like it as much as I do. But I tend to like more things than I don’t like; I’d rather say yes than no. But seriously, an ongoing conversation with the American people about this, the greatest arrangement ever devised on how men should live together, is the best thing I’ve ever done, well maybe second after books.
Lopez: You have a Ph.D. in philosophy; in one sentence what is the philosopher’s tip of the hat to history as evidenced in this volume?
Bennett: Well, I cut my teeth on the Greeks—Plato and Aristotle. But I gotta tell you a few hundred square miles in rural Virginia produced philosophical, political, practical thought that rivals anything ever done in Athens. As lawgivers, Solon, Pericles, Hammurabi stand behind Madison.
Lopez: Is the best yet to come for “The Last Best Hope”–in volume II and in our future?
Bennett: Ronald Reagan said “History is a ribbon, always unfurling.” We’ll have our hills and valleys. We were the last best hope, we are the last best hope, and my guess is we will be the last best hope.
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