He’s a husband and father. He has been the secretary of education and the drug czar. He’s been a professor, a think-tank co-founder, and now he’s a successful radio talk show host. And through it all, William J. Bennett has always been a writer. Today, publisher Thomas Nelson releases the bestselling author’s new book, A Century Turns: New Hopes, New Fears, the third in his series on American history, this one taking us up to the present day of Taylor Swift and Sarah Palin. Currently the Washington fellow at the Claremont Institute (where I’ve also become a fellow in the last year), Bill Bennett took questions Monday on his latest book and on America today.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You quote your late dear friend Jack Kemp as saying, “The leaders of the Democratic Party aren’t soft on communism, they’re soft on democracy.” More than a year into Democratic control of all branches of government in Washington, how might you adapt that to the current moment?
WILLIAM J. BENNETT: I don’t think Jack’s comment could be more apt, actually. Look to Iran. It was a liberal editor, Leon Wieseltier, who recently observed that “our Iran policy seems not to have discovered the connection between Iranian nuclearization and Iranian liberalization. The only sure solution to the former is the latter.” And yet where have Obama and the Democrats been? Perhaps the single most famous statement out of the president thus far is what he said after the fraudulent election in Iran, when democratic students and protesters (who wanted America’s help) were being crushed in the streets. What did the legatee of “tear down this wall” say? What did the legatee of “bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend” say? The U.S. should not be seen as “meddling.”
Right now, there is nothing to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear nation and a nuclearized foe of the West — except one thing: a different government. That different government could have come from the students and the democrats in the streets. Our national response to them was less than “soft,” it was a cold shoulder and deaf ear. It is continually astounding to me this former community organizer who wrapped himself in the cloth of civil rights sees this not at all.
LOPEZ: You mention that you weren’t originally planning on writing about the Nineties on — you were inclined to wait for time to lapse, perspective to be gained. In that vein, if you had to do it all over again, would you write The Death of Outrage, about the Clinton impeachment years, any differently?
BENNETT: No, I don’t think so. The country went through a crisis in the latter part of the Clinton years, a crisis the president and his deputies put us through. I thought we needed some perspective on all that. There was some other perspective to be found at the time, and I try to highlight some of that; Ted Koppel, for example, in a really great commencement speech he delivered in 1998, gave some great responses to the defense of Bill Clinton in 1998. I write about that in the book.
Also, journalist Michael Kelly, who died in Iraq, told me over lunch he would never vote Democrat again after Bill Clinton. He thought the Democratic pattern of consistent lying over Bill Clinton would haunt them. I agree. And it haunts them still. That’s the worst deposit of the Clinton legacy.
I am still proud of what I wrote in my book. I don’t think Democrats should be proud of their defense of Clinton — and I think without that defense they may have had a clearer path to the 2000 election, too. Having said that, I think Bill Clinton has been a very good ex-president. Oscar Wilde said every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.
LOPEZ: You seem surprised that your American history series, The Last, Best Hope, has become a teaching tool. You are a former secretary of education, who, as I recall, visited a staggeringly unprecedented number of schools during your tenure. You’re also a pretty impressively bestselling author. Is it all that surprising that a history book that you’ve written would make its way into schools?
BENNETT: Thank you. Very kind. I think I’ve visited about 600 schools to date.
As you and I have discussed before, for all the lamenting we do about our nation’s reading and math scores, our country’s schoolchildren actually do worse in American history — it’s their worst subject. Too many teachers are saddled with books and curricula that are either too boring or too tendentious. I tried to do a three-part series on American history that was honest and riveting. Our story is still the second greatest story ever told , and the greatest political story; and it pains me that too many of our children are turned off or tuned out to it. And then we expect them to be citizens in a country whose story they don’t know. I did not think my books — honest and fair as I tried to make them — would be as well-received by people in the schools as they have been.
But I have been both gratified and surprised to find a lot of reviewers, teachers, and administrators read the books on their merits. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response by both conservatives and liberals, and people with no particular partisan loyalty. It really is a great testament to our country and system of education to know that in a lot of precincts partisanship can take a break, blinders can be lifted.
LOPEZ: Once you sat down and starting writing about these years you were going to wait on, what surprised you most? Was there anything on which you found yourself having a different view than you did in the moment? Did you learn anything important you just hadn’t realized?
BENNETT: Great question. More than anything I was reminded of things I hadn’t thought about in a very long time. Do people realize how bad our illicit-drug situation is now? The idea that we can’t do anything about it is belied by the fact that we did do something about it. Once we gave up — surprise! — we lost ground. And in looking into the lead-up to the liberation of Iraq, it’s surprising to go back and see, from the 1990s on, how bipartisan was the recognition that Saddam really had to go. This wasn’t just a Republican cause — once upon a time, this was a truly bipartisan concern. I also think the presidency of George H. W. Bush, which I go into, deserves the re-evaluation it received by the voters in 1992. One independent journalist, Jonathan Rauch, pointed out that he’s one of the most underrated presidents in recent history. Jonathan is right.
LOPEZ: You mention “Atari Democrats.” How did they fare? And is there an opening for Bing or Buzz Republicans?
BENNETT: Kathryn, really? I now have to worry about “Buzz Republicans”? Will you teach me about what Buzz is? I still don’t know how to use Twitter. Anyway, you know what I thought about when I wrote about “Atari Democrats”? I wondered if a lot of young readers would even know what “Atari” referenced. Did you know? Be honest. Or did you have to google it? And will someone born today know what the phrase “google it” means in 20 years? It’s amazing how fast and furious the technology has moved, that was something that surprised me when writing this book, apropos your earlier question. Twenty years ago, if you had asked someone to “e-mail me” or said, “check out my website (or blog),” or began a phrase with “www” or asked if an article was “available online” or tried to tell someone what was on your “iPod playlist,” you would have received a blank stare. “Amazon” was known simply as a forest in South America, “blackberry” was a fruit, and “google” meant nothing. By the way, we have a list of such neologisms in the book. I wonder what those things, so infused in our culture now, will mean in 20 years — if anything.
When my associate producer at my radio show was born, not very many people had cell phones, and those they had were the size of bricks. Now he helps run a radio show and teaches me about technology.
Anyway, I don’t know if the so-called Atari Democrats ended up doing all that much for the economy they set out to revolutionize. I still think the most and best jobs and innovation come from the private sector — although maybe not always the most lasting jobs (government is good at creating those). The best thing would-be public officials can do on that front is get out of the way. A lesson for our time is another one that Jack Kemp used to teach: If you want to make things easier on the employee class, you don’t make things harder on the employer class, but inspire and encourage it instead.
LOPEZ: You’ll be happy to know I was raised on Atari. That and a regular diet of NR and Firing Line brings a gal to these parts, I suppose.
Did America cease to be “Freedom Man” around about the time that armed immigration agents seized that little boy in Miami?
BENNETT: What a black mark that was, and a very bad moment for America. A lot of people said that Elián González had to go back because his father had a claim to him, too. Well, it wasn’t his father Elián went back to, it was Castro. Elián’s mother risked and gave her life so Elián could breathe and live free in America. That freedom was snuffed out, and it was a tragedy. We literally lost sleep in my home over what happened there. It was a huge setback for the idea of America as the “Freedom Man” Ronald Reagan spoke of. But we still are the “Freedom Man” in the totality of our acts. With Elián we lost it for a moment.
But a lot of people still think of America the right way. I carry around a quote with me from Jean-Louis Geffrard. He’s a laborer who lives under a tarp in Haiti. You know what he said last month? “I want the Americans to take over the country.” He gets us. Still.
LOPEZ: Your book is not about the Reagan years, but you do mention Reagan’s killing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Did you do so for more than a parochial interest as a talk-radio host?
BENNETT: Yes. That really didn’t occur to me. But I was thinking about what helped create the revolution of 1994 and the whole new era of communication brought in by talk radio and then, later, other forms of media. Now, in thinking about “Atari Democrats” from your earlier question: Was there anything a Democrat did that expanded our means of communication and information gathering more than the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine? Can you imagine our movement — or our country — without the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the radio world? They not only helped our economy, and our movement — they created a whole new approach for politicians and for citizens unhappy with the mainstream media to get their information. Their latter-day imitators — from left and right — did, too.
LOPEZ: You clearly have a deep admiration for George H. W. Bush. Is the man history knows forever bound to be different than the man you served with?
BENNETT: You know, I’m guessing that somewhere around early 1998, a lot of independents and others who didn’t vote to reelect George H. W. Bush six years earlier were really missing him. I ran into one of Pres. George W. Bush’s brothers about a month ago. I told him, “I bet a lot of people are missing your family now.” I think both Presidents Bush are going to get a much better treatment from history than they’ve received thus far.
LOPEZ: Speaking of George H. W. Bush, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t thought of that Dan Rather interview he did in January 1988. That was a great moment, wasn’t it?
BENNETT: It was a great moment. When I was in college and grad school, the political-science courses were all about “Who governs the governors?” — meaning: What do citizens have at their disposal to keep their elected officials in check? Well, too often the mainstream media think they are the answer to that question. Sometimes they are, or can be. But sometimes, too, they act as if they are the governors. And when a pol hits back hard, and when it’s deserved, it’s a great moment. There’s actually too little of that these days. Too many leaders go to a press that agrees with them a priori — to audiences that approve of them from the get-go. I’d like to see more mixing it up.
LOPEZ: You mention how the first President Bush hated the word “I.” If you think that way, how do you get to be as accomplished as he was? And how was it different from Reagan’s “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit”?
BENNETT: I read somewhere once that Ann Landers wrote, “Let your virtues, if you have any, speak for themselves. Refuse to talk of other’s vices. Discourage gossip.” That was Pres. George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, too, as I knew them. Just fine, fine men. I’d still like to think people can succeed in life that way — that good work and keeping your side of the street clean will pay off in the long run. I still see a lot of that in Washington, I’d like to see more of it.
LOPEZ: You served as the first drug czar, a controversial post even in these parts. Was the “War on Drugs” won? In retrospect, should it have been called a war? Could things have been done differently? Is there room for common grounds between you and libertarians?
BENNETT: You can never win this war in the sense of eliminating illicit drugs completely — their supply or their demand. But you can change the numbers, you can reduce them. You can change the way the culture thinks and talks about — and then uses them. We did — and by “we” I don’t mean me, I mean the entire country. We were serious about it, and our leaders talked about it, and we got drug use down to record-low numbers in the early 1990s. We’ve stopped talking about it as a nation and guess what? Demand and supply are up. If there was a “loss” it was the loss of our nascent victory. And yes, “war” was a good word for it — it focused national attention. I wish there were more, serious, war talk about important problems.
LOPEZ: You have never met Lech Walesa, but have long wanted to. You’re a historic figure in your own right; you have been the colleague and friend and enemy of many others: What’s so special about Walesa?
BENNETT: He changed a country and a continent — and for the better. He helped bring down the Evil Empire. He risked his life doing so, so did those who worked with him. There are just too few like him that we remember anymore. I associate the fall of Communism with four people, principally: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa. Of that group, he seems to be the one you’d be most comfortable with at a bar, throwing a few down, and watching him smoke a few packs. The others, not. I’ve had great times with Reagan — but not those kinds of times. With Thatcher and the Pope, enough said. Hopefully, someday, we’ll be able to toast and celebrate the Lech Walesa of Iran — but, of course, it would take an American president to recognize and help him or her. Right now, the latter part of that equation is badly missing.
LOPEZ: Why did George H. W. Bush give us David Souter?
BENNETT: That’s some interesting history — I’m going to just tell people to read the book on that one. But I will remind you: Souter was not a foregone nominee; there were a lot of us who said he was the wrong guy for the job.
LOPEZ: You have a pregnant-seeming line in a paragraph that begins with Lee Atwater. You write, “Through modern American political history, what candidates say for public consumption about tactics and goals is often not the same as the way the candidates’ operatives run campaigns.” Is this a natural trend? A necessary trend? A dangerous trend? Where you thinking of something specific? Are there examples where the candidate and the operatives are more in sync — for better or for worse?
BENNETT: What seems to me the most dangerous legacy of this is the permanent campaign mode we see too often from politicians once they become leaders by dint of their election. Campaigning is not the same as governing, and yet more and more we see the campaign political advisers in the governors’ administrations and everything becomes a campaign. There really ought be more of a distinction. And yes, candidates should be more in tune with what their campaigns do, and I can think of a few immediate examples right now.
I talk about my experience as the designated chairman of the RNC in this regard in A Century Turns.
LOPEZ: While many may be looking for him in a northeast snowdrift, are you praising Al Gore? For all his wrongheadedness, in finally conceding the 2000 election, he showed leadership of the sort that the president he served under never really showed, didn’t he?
BENNETT: Al Gore has said some terrible things since his tenure in office. Bill Clinton has been a good ex-president — and far less political, and angry, than Al Gore. In my view, since leaving office, Clinton has gotten considerably better while Gore has gotten considerably worse.
LOPEZ: Not to pick on Bill Clinton, but you write that, at the end of 2000, “There was no substantial action against Osama bin Laden, there was no conversion of Yasser Arafat, and Saddam Hussein was still running Iraq — and thwarting international inspections.” You add the ominously obvious: “There was more to come.” Was the Clinton presidency a failure?
BENNETT: No. I can think of a lot of achievements of the Clinton administration, and I praise him for a lot of those achievements. I do think they came easier and faster to him as a result of having a GOP Congress. But there’s a lot in the Clinton presidency I wish we had now.
LOPEZ: The Cole. The World Trade Center, once. Then, gone. We’ve had a dire two decades, haven’t we? Whose fault is that?
BENNETT: Dire, but also great. It may take the benefit of more time to see more of the great. But think of some of our heroes of the last 20 years — we are not without them. I hope our young children can look at and learn from the story of the man to whom I dedicate the book, Rick Rescorla. Or look at a Liviu Librescu.
Whose is to blame for the problems we’ve had? A lot of people, and in both parties. You read the writings of, say, Steve Emerson, in the 1990s. He had it right. My fear is: Will we miss the critical analysis of things that could happen to us a decade from now, even as good researchers and writers are writing about them? I said recently that I hope, once Iran becomes a nuclear country, that it will be noted that some of us gave a damn ahead of time and actually urged the kind of action we don’t see now.
LOPEZ: How should history remember George W. Bush’s presidency? To what extent did 9/11 define him? And us?
BENNETT: The way the cover of Newsweek is crafted this week.
Shakespeare said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” On and after 9/11, that was America and her leadership.
LOPEZ: Say I am a teacher, and I want to make use of your resources. What do I do?
BENNETT: Go to roadmaptolastbesthope.com.
– Kathryn Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.