Editor’s note: This piece by Robert D. Novak appeared in the April 3, 2000, issue of National Review.
On Super Tuesday, when George W. Bush clinched the nomination, some of us on television speculated about his running mate. The ideal complement to the Texas governor, I suggested, would be a cerebral, articulate Catholic with a little silver in his hair. Who else but Bill Bennett? Now, Bennett doesn’t like the idea. Bush has shown no sign that he is moving that way. And so it will likely not happen. But that wouldn’t be the first time the GOP took the wrong path. As Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed said in 1896, when asked whether the party might nominate him for president, “They could do worse, and they undoubtedly will.”
It was four years ago this summer, on the eve of the San Diego convention, that Bob Dole asked William J. Bennett to be his running mate. Bennett declined, and Dole instead chose Jack Kemp. It is not certain that Bennett would have helped Dole’s pitiable effort, but the idea made a lot of sense then, and makes even more now. Bush, like Dole, could use someone on the ticket with a better feel for social- conservative issues. And at age 53, Bush still has something of the frat boy about him, and does not pretend to be an intellectual. What’s more, during his fierce struggle with Sen. John McCain, Bush exhibited the typical Republican clumsiness in dealing with Catholic voters, an indispensable constituency for the party.
Bennett is, indeed, the perfect complement to Bush: a brainy, street- smart Catholic who has never been accused of immaturity. He is a favorite of rank-and-file conservatives, including the religious Right, and he does not frighten the party’s establishment. In addition, this best- selling author of virtue books can reassure Americans seeking an anchor in their lives.
Admittedly, Bennett would be a choice off the beaten path: He has never sought public office and represents no state. But unlike the more conventional prospects for vice president, he transcends workaday politics as the kind of figure who can capture the imagination of Americans. More effectively than any of the presidential aspirants, he has called for renewing the institutions of family, faith, and community. He does not flinch from straight talk about the nation’s maladies: juvenile crime, suicide, divorce, drug abuse-and abortion. At the 1992 Republican convention, he brought the crowd to its feet when he declared that America’s children are not “animals in heat” but “thinking creations of God.” This would be a vice-presidential nominee who could not be ignored.
When Bennett rejected Dole’s vice-presidential offer, he was true to the pattern of his extraordinary career as a Republican. That career began 14 years ago when, at age 41, while serving as President Reagan’s education secretary, he switched his registration from Democratic to Republican. Julius Caesar refused the crown three times, but Bennett has since turned down even more opportunities, ranging from party chairman to presidential candidate. That prompts two tantalizing questions. Why has he said no so many times? And why do the offers keep coming?
Bennett’s muscular personality and aggressive intellectuality have made him a natural for GOP headhunters. He should be all the more appealing now because of the mess the party has made with the Catholic vote. To be elected, Bush must appeal to these voters. There is a ready supply of Catholic governors who might team with Bush: George Pataki of New York, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, John Engler of Michigan, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Frank Keating of Oklahoma. These are politicians who happen to be Catholic. But Bennett, in contrast, is a Catholic who, if not quite a politician, has been engaged in political activities for many years.
This distinction is critically important. For all of his being educated at Williams and Harvard, and devoting his early career to academic pursuits, and living today as a multimillionaire author and lecturer, Bennett still evokes an aura of the gritty, savvy urban Catholic who is ideologically attracted to Republicans but culturally put off by them. “I’m from Brooklyn, Roman Catholic, always thought of the Democrats as the party of the people and the Republicans as the country-clubbers,” he told me in 1986, in explaining why it had taken him so long to become a Republican. “To leave the Democrats was like leaving the Catholic Church.”
From the moment he signed up with the party, Bennett was recruited vigorously-and unsuccessfully-for a more active role. Registered to vote in his wife’s hometown of Charlotte, N.C., he was urged by Sen. Jesse Helms to run for that state’s other Senate seat. When he changed his registration to his own home in Maryland, members of that state’s desiccated Republican party pleaded with him to run for the Senate from there. In between, he had been sought out for a Senate run from his native state of New York. As early as 1988, a “Draft Bennett” presidential movement was formed, and friends tried well in advance to launch a 1996 campaign. During the Bush administration, Bennett actually agreed to serve as Republican national chairman, then reneged when his brother Robert (later to be Bill Clinton’s lawyer) pointed to vast conflict-of-interest problems with his profession as an author. The V.P. offer from Dole was the most recent that Bennett has spurned.
So, why has he always said no? When he decided in 1995 to forego a presidential bid, I asked him whether he feared skeletons in his closet. He said no, while allowing that he had lived a full life. The real problem, he continued, was that he would rather spend a Saturday afternoon playing football with his young sons than shaking the hands of voters.
When I asked him specifically this March 13 what he would do if George W. Bush asked him to run, this most voluble and articulate of men was silent for a moment, then said hesitantly: “I don’t know. I don’t know.” His cell phone went dead, and when he called me back a half-hour later, he had collected his thoughts. “Of course,” he said, “I’d seriously consider it-like I did the last time [when Dole asked]. But I think it would come out the same way. I don’t think I’d do it.” Bennett told me, as he had on previous occasions, that he lacks the “passion” to seek political office, and questioned whether he met Bush’s requirements. “I don’t think he needs a philosopher,” he said.
There is, of course, no assurance that Bennett will ever have to provide an answer — especially given his performance so far in the 2000 presidential cycle. He was initially impressed by Bush, then flirted, and traveled, with McCain, then drew back when McCain made his February 28 speech assailing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Bennett’s reaction to McCain’s blast reassured the Bush camp as to Bennett’s objectivity, but one of Bush’s advisers raised with me a cautionary note: If presidential nominee Bush said something considered offensive by vice-presidential nominee Bennett, would his running mate go public against him? In short, is Bennett a team player?
Maybe not. But, for Bush and the Republican party, the risk is worth taking. This figures to be a close election. The old formula of picking a vice president who simply won’t hurt may be insufficient. Bill Bennett, as the quintessential Catholic candidate, could help.