Chicago Sun-Times - Steve Neal
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Steve Neal

Don't believe Bennett hype

September 24, 2003

BY STEVE NEAL SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

Shall we gather at the river? William J. Bennett, the silver-tongued voice of the religious right, is appearing at a fund-raiser tonight for Republican senatorial hopeful Jack Ryan.

Bennett, 60, the best-selling author of such pious tomes as The Book of Virtues, Our Sacred Honor and Moral Compass, wants to save our souls and show us the light. He has been lamenting for years that this nation is in moral decline. Imagine what he thinks about the town that Billy Sunday could not shut down.

This holy roller supports a constitutional amendment that would allow prayer in schools, deplores sex education, and says that ''Christian values'' should be taught in public schools. America's children, he declared at the 1992 GOP national convention, aren't ''animals in heat'' but ''thinking creations of God.''

Bennett is in favor of making divorces more difficult to obtain, denying women their reproductive freedom and imposing censorship on Hollywood. ''Cultural problems,'' he asserts, ''require cultural solutions.''

He opposes gay rights and urges ''moral criticism of homosexuality.'' Bennett has made a career out of preaching intolerance and recklessly vilifying groups and individuals.

Yet he is breathlessly touted by the Ryan campaign as ''one of America's most important, influential and respected voices on cultural, political, and education issues"; ''one of the nation's most prominent political figures,'' and an ''extraordinary influence on America's political and social landscape.''

In reality, his political career is a study in failure. As secretary of education in Ronald Reagan's administration, he was the least effective member of the Cabinet. He has a short attention span and couldn't be bothered with the administrative details of running his department.

Bennett is an elitist without apologies. In one of his first policy statements, he called for a reduction in student loans, asserting that not everyone should go to college. He holds degrees from Williams College, the University of Texas and Harvard Law School.

He is offended by efforts to achieve diversity on our nation's college campuses and has denounced affirmative action as ''a perverse system of numerical equality.''

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during Reagan's first term, Bennett slashed funding for programs in black, ethnic and women's studies. He also refused to comply with federal guidelines for hiring personnel in his department. Bennett adamantly refused to give preference to women or members of racial minorities.

As director of the Office of National Drug Policy during President George H.W. Bush's administration, he used the war on drugs to promote unprecedented invasions of privacy.

Drugs, he confided to Bush, are the one issue ''where, I, a conservative Republican, feel comfortable in advocating a strong federal role.''

Bennett was better at giving speeches than slowing the drug traffic into this country.

''Government,'' he later wrote, ''through law, discourse, and example, can legitimize and delegitimize certain acts. In a free society, where the people decide, leaders must understand that few things they do matter more than speaking about the right things in the right way.''

There's no doubt Bennett has the gift of gab. But he has always shirked the hard work of shaping public policy. While peddling that old-time religion, he preaches family values and self-control.

''We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing,'' Bennett proclaimed in The Book of Virtues. He added that we ''need to set definite boundaries on our appetites.''

But as is often the case with con men, he doesn't apply these rules to himself.

Bennett has listed ''problem'' gambling on his index of culutral indicators. His political organization, Empower America, has fought the expansion of casino gambling.

It turns out that this quacking scold is a compulsive gambler. Bennett has reportedly blown $8 million in gambling dens over the last decade, but when the Washington Monthly and Newsweek recently exposed this addiction, Bennett insisted that he doesn't have a problem. ''I've gambled all my life,'' he said, ''and it's never been a moral issue with me.''

Bennett, who plays video poker and slot machines, then made the dubious claim that he has ''come out pretty close to even.'' That's unlikely.

The man of virtues once wrote that credibility is everything. ''Whether you're talking about a police officer, a teacher, a doctor or car mechanic,'' he said, ''it matters greatly whether that person's word is good.''

Unless you're Buncombe Bill.





 
 











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