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William Bennett

William Bennett

SOURCE: August Pollak

America’s leading moralist, William J. Bennett, has made a fortune off his best-selling books telling others how to live, chiefly The Book of Virtues and The Children’s Book of Virtues. Author, think-tanker and conservative radio host, Bennett is an influential member of the do-as-I-say wing of the conservative movement.

William John Bennett was born July 31, 1943, in Brooklyn , New York. He graduated from Williams College, and went on to get a Ph.D. from the University of Texas in Political Philosophy. He also has a law degree from Harvard.

From 1976 to 1981, Bennett was executive director of the National Humanities Center, a private research facility. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he served until Reagan appointed him Secretary of Education in 1985. In 1989 President George H.W. Bush appointed Bennett to be the first White House "drug czar."

As drug czar Bennett took “zero tolerance” to a new level, declaring, for example, that casual drug users were more dangerous than addicts, and they should be punished accordingly, because they send the message that drug use is OK. And he took a line on drug dealers that rivaled the world’s most hard-line regimes: During a June 15, 1989, appearance on Larry King Live, one caller suggested that Bennett "behead the damn drug dealers." Not even bothering to feign alarm, Bennett replied, "I mean what the caller suggests is morally plausible. Legally, it’s difficult. But somebody selling drugs to a kid? Morally, I don’t have any problem with that at all."

Bennett is now an author, speaker, and host of the weekday radio program Morning in America. He is a member of the neo-con Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which has been much criticized for pushing hawkish and go-it-alone interventionist policies overseas, and he was one of the signers of the January 26, 1998, PNAC letter sent to President Bill Clinton urging Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein from power. He was also a distinguished fellow of the paleo-con Heritage Foundation.

Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” airs on approximately 115 radio stations with an estimated weekly audience of 1.25 million listeners. It was this radio show that recently got him in trouble when he declared on September 28, 2005, that if “you wanted to reduce crime … if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." He hastened to add, “ That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

Bennett came up with a clever defense, though. It’s all those images of black looters in New Orleans on TV that put the idea in his head. Bennett claimed that "[s]tories about looting and shooting and gangs and roving gangs and so on" after Hurricane Katrina inspired his “abort every black baby” comment.

Alas, this is not first the time Bennett has offered such offensive musings on matters of race. On a February 8 episode of FOX News’ Hannity & Colmes Bennett said about privatizing Social Security "if the Democrats were doing it, it would be called positive affirmative action" – in reference to the previously debunked conservative talking point that Social Security privatization would benefit African-Americans.

Bennett has not been shy about aggressive mischaracterizations on other fronts. Discussing President Clinton’s impeachment, Bennett has repeatedly referred to Clinton ’s “felony” and “perjury,” when the ex-President was not indicted—much less convicted. For example, in a November 21, 2004 appearance on FOX News Sunday, Bennett claimed six times that Clinton committed "perjury" or a "felony" for lying under oath . But that’s just an old habit for Bennett. He’d been at it since August 23, 1998, when he called Clinton a “felon” on NBC’s Meet the Press . During MSNBC’s Decision 2000: Democratic National Convention coverage on August 15, 2000, Bennett said: "He [Clinton] hasn’t apologized for the perjury, for the felony." When Bill O’Reilly pointed out to Bennett that same day that Clinton didn’t do so because he didn’t believe he had committed perjury or a felony, Bennett retorted, "Well, it doesn’t matter if he sees it that way…. Facts are facts." If Bennett holds the facts in such high regard, it would behoove him to get them right.

But felony isn’t the only baseless charge of which Bennett would have convicted Clinton without a trial. In reference to what Bennett regarded as a lack of outrage on the part of feminists regarding a sexual harassment accusation against President Clinton in 1999, Bennett tastefully noted, "If you’re going to be a rapist, be pro-choice. That’s for sure."

Bennett’s hard line on substance abuse and personal morality may seem a tad ironic, in light of the fact that he is a drinker and a former chain-smoker. But more ironic still were the revelations two years ago that Bennett had gambled some $8 million away in the previous ten years. While it’s true Bennett didn’t oppose gambling specifically, Empower America , now part of FreedomWorks, where he was co-director at the time, opposed expanding legal gambling. Bennett also tried to dishonestly weasel his way out of it, by claiming that he had won more than he lost—a virtual (no pun intended) statistical impossibility when you play slots—claiming that he got started gambling by playing bingo in church, and pointing out that he could afford to. This last claim, of course, cuts against his contention that things like homosexuality and casual drug use are harmful to society even when they don’t directly affect anyone, because they create a climate of moral laxity. But apparently that only applies to other people’s behavior.

For the most concise summary of Bennett’s hypocrisy, see Calvin Trillin’s poem in The Nation.

We leave you with some choice quotes from the paragon of virtue himself.

"The best available research suggests that the average life span of male homosexuals is around 43 years of age. Forty three." (His emphasis.) – From ABC’s This Week, November 9, 1997

Homosexuality "takes 30 years off your life." – From the same program. Read an explanation here for why these numbers are completely false.

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the guy who established Social Security, said that it would be good to have it replaced by private investment over time. Private investment would be the way to really carry this thing through." – February 3, 2005, FOX News, Hannity & Colmes. Click here for an explanation of why this is untrue.

“Illegal drug use, especially among our children, is a plague that has lacked serious federal attention…. In the 1990s, the federal government all but gave up on saving our youth from drugs.” – The Wall Street Journal, “We Need a Drug Czar Now,” November 29, 2001. Click here for an explanation of why those statements are completely counter-factual.

Illustration: August J. Pollak

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