Presidential Guest Speaker-William J. Bennett
Feb. 23, 1996

Introduction by James W. Strickland, MD, 1995 Academy president:

It's an incredible privilege for me today to introduce our presidential guest speaker, William J. Bennett. Mr. Bennett is a native of Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Washington, D.C. where he attended Gonzonga High School. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from Williams College, and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Texas and a law degree from Harvard. Dr. Bennett has a distinguished career. In 1981, President Reagan appointed him Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities and in 1985 he was named Secretary of Education. In 1989 he accepted the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and during his decade of public service he earned the reputation as a man of strong, reasoned convictions who spoke candidly and eloquently on some of the most important issues of our time.

Bill Bennett has achieved a rare feat. In his post government life, he has had even a greater impact on our national political debate than while he was in office. His book, entitled The Book of Virtues, has sold over 1.5 million copies and helped elevate the discussion of values in our society and a second book is now in the marketplace.

Bill Bennett has been called the by Modern Maturity magazine as the most influential man in America. One national political commentator has called him the closest thing that America has had to C. S. Lewis, the eminent British writer and philosopher. And even a liberal columnist in the Boston Globe said, "Bennett has very expertly and intelligently raised cultural issues."

As most of you know, Bill Bennett has recently announced that he will not seek the 1996 Republican nomination for President. Syndicated columnist Mona Karan said about this decision, "There is leadership by persuasion at which Mr. Bennett is the first among equals." Bill Bennett has just illustrated that there are things more valuable in life than gaining the White House and certainly more valuable than pursuing it. Whoever does gain the Republican nomination will do well to study what makes non-politician, Bill Bennett, such a sensation.

Dr. Bennett is currently a distinguished fellow in cultural studies at the Heritage Foundation and co-director of Empower America. He is one of the most exciting and intellectually challenging speakers in America today.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud, on behalf of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons to present to you the Honorable William J. Bennett.

(Applause).

Remarks by William J. Bennett:

Thank you very much, Dr. Strickland, and ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for the warm welcome. The introduction was perfect, I noticed throughout that I was referred to as "Mr. Bennett," which is entirely appropriate. I am often called Dr. Bennett, but I understand why you didn't do that here.

(Laughter).

I don't like the doctor. I think doctors are what you folks are, not what I am. I have a PhD in philosophy, and so they can call me doctor on those grounds, but I don't think they should. I have a law doctorate from Harvard, again, they could call me doctor, when I was studying law, I was living with freshmen at Harvard University and I was their proctor. So, the day I got my degree I was doctor, doctor proctor.

(Laughter).

But I made the mistake once of having an airline ticket with Dr. Bennett written on it and somebody back in 17F got sick and they came to get me. You know that experience. And I said unless they're having an identity crises, I can't help.

(Laughter).

Even if so, probably not very much. I am to speak for a while then I am to vacate the podium to make room for the Speaker of the House, Representative Newt Gingrich and I'll be very happy to do that. We take up about the same amount of space...and...(Laughter)...Newt will not be happy that I'm saying this. Newt and Rush Limbaugh and I spent Memorial Day weekend in Florida together at a mutual friend's house and we had a lot of political talk and other things, but I tell people they lowered their swimming pool by about two feet and invited us down.

(Laughter).

Anyway...this is your morning for bulky chic and you can send diets to the above address. Anyway, I'm very happy to be with you and I appreciate the introduction, Dr. Strickland.

Let me talk a little bit about my career, because it's a way of talking about the issues I want to address. I will not be too long or I promise at least I will not be as long as it may seem to some of you.

(Laughter).

Then I would welcome your questions until the Speaker arrives.

I started as Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities under Ronald Reagan. That's the National Endowment for the Humanities, not the National Endowment for the Arts. I go to some pains to point that out. The arts is the one with the pictures.

(Laughter).

...Sometimes dirty pictures...the Humanities is the one with the books and they're sometimes dirty books, but you have to be a professor of the humanities to know that they're dirty books. You have to de-construct the book text and so on. Anyway, it took a year for Reagan to appoint me. They told him he had to have a professor of the humanities, a professor of philosophy or history or literature, so they began a nationwide search for a professor of the humanities who had voted for Ronald Reagan.

(Laughter).

And there were three of us....

(Laughter)

...Found in various places of the expanse of this country. I was the biggest, so I got the job. It was an interesting job. Lots of academics. Lots of tweed. Lots of elbow patches. Lots of white wine, brie, museum openings, exhibitions, lots of French.

(Laughter).

...Lots of literary illusions...it was okay. Too many black ties for me. Then I moved on to become Secretary of Education where I became extremely controversial. And I'm still regarded by the press and others as very controversial. I held two very radical views in education, such as a belief in homework...

(Laughter).

...The belief that children should be made to study certain things even if they didn't want to, like math and science. And other things that put me almost beyond the path of respectable educational thinking of the time. I was however, supported in my efforts by only one group, but it's a significant group, it's called "parents," who tended to come in behind me. We got into trouble in higher education because we defended the teaching and learning of Western civilization. I didn't think people should not learn Eastern civilization. I thought they should learn about every civilization we know about, but I didn't see that there was any reason to disparage Western civilization. Since most of our students will probably live in it, they probably ought to know something about it, and as civilizations go, rule of law, individual conscience, liberty, freedom of contract, property rights and things like that, equality; I thought it was a pretty good civilization. I went around universities and debated this issue. I had to go to Stanford to defend Western civilization. It seems like sort of an odd thing to have to do, but such were the times, no one on the faculty wanted to defend it, so I had to go. The argument against Western civilization was being made by Jesse Jackson, whose argument went like this: "Hey, hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go."

(Laughter and applause).

I thought that was catchy, but not compelling. So we went out and made the case. After three years of Secretary of Education, I became Director of National Drug Control Policy, or drug czar where I had no laugh lines except I could refer to my wife as "Czarling."

(Laughter)

...And our two little boys as the "Czardines."

(Laughter).

During the years I was drug czar, not because of me, but during those years, because of national trends, drug use went down about 60 percent in this country. It started to go down in '85, we came in '89. I think we helped it along, I don't think we hurt it. We certainly paid a lot of attention to it. There was a lot of discussion of it. It was identified as the number one issue in the country. We tried to enlist everyone, the medical community, the teaching community, the ministerial community, parents, broadcasters, the entertainment industry. We actually were paying a lot of attention to the drug issue. As a result, drug use went way down in the late '80s and into the early '90s, but starting in 1992 the issue virtually disappeared from the radar screen of politicians in both parties, I must say, but especially in the White House. And we are now seeing drug use climb back up at record rates. It's a very, very bad business and attention must be paid to this issue.

I did both jobs in a similar way, the education job and the drug job. I went out around the country and visited, it was my wife's idea. She said, "Don't stand there and watch them make pronouncements. Get out and find out what's going on in the schools and then make your pronouncements. Go visit places." I remember when she told me this, I drew myself up and said, "Elaine, I am the Secretary of Education in the United States, I don't do retail, I do wholesale." And she said, "Do retail and you'll do better wholesale." She's a daughter of a salesman. And so I did. I went to 105 communities in the education job and 110 communities as drug czar. We went to where the action was and looked at things and spent the day. I taught classes. I was in on drug busts. I think I learned something about this country, which I will tell you in a minute. When I got out of government after nine and a half years, it was time to find a job, as my brother says, "A real job." My brother is the president's lawyer. He's got a real job.

(Laughter and applause).

...Umh, long-term. This audience knows the distinction between "acute" and "chronic."

(Laughter)

I think this is both acute and chronic. Anyway, so I had to find employment. It's very good for Republicans, who talk about term limits and stuff to be thrown out and have to find your way in the real world. So one of the things I decided to do was to do a book. After touring the schools and seeing what I've described as the dismal state of character education, nobody wanted to talk about "right and wrong." Everybody was afraid that they would offend someone. People kept coming up with arguments that students were from different backgrounds and different cultures, therefore, what could we say about right and wrong. And I asked them in what culture was it okay to beat someone's brains in, to steal lunch money, or to rape one's daughters or sisters. In what culture or civilization is that approved? It occurred to me touring the country as drug czar and Secretary of Education that we were missing out on the basics. Not the hard questions of euthanasia or abortion or other issues where very reasonable people might disagree, but simply on the fundamental issues of basic right and wrong. And when I was drug czar and talked to a lot of judges, they would tell me they kept sentencing people, young men, for the most part, whom these judges would say, who don't have any idea of the difference between right and wrong, because no one has every taught it to them. So I started talking about this with people in the schools and said, "Can we teach this any more?" They said, "We don't know how." We'll violate church and state. We don't know...we're not sure ourselves what material to use. So I decided I'd try to come up with a book that would be useful for teachers and for parents and it would be stories from all over the world about right and wrong organized by the various virtues. An old fashioned word, but a pretty good word. So I called it, The Book of Virtues. Dr. Strickland referred to it. Well, I came up with the idea to one publisher and the publisher said, "You've got to be kidding. This thing is 800 pages long. There are no pictures, I mean...(Laugher) even medical textbooks have pictures."

(Laughter)

...And he said, "It's a lot of moralizing stories." And I said, "Well, that's sort of the point."

(Laughter)

Eight hundred pages. No pictures. No sex. A lot of moralizing stories. He said, no one would buy this book. So I went to another publisher and he said, "I like your idea of the book of values." I said, "It's not the book of values." The book of values is the Sears catalog.

(Laughter)

...Or the Walmart catalog to be more current. This is something different. They said, they'd give it a try. So that was Simon and Schuster. They gave it a try. They printed 50,000 copies. And we've now sold not 1.5 million, but 2.4 million copies of this book. This 800 page book with no pictures and a lot of moralizing stories. So somebody out there is interested in getting it. It's been very, very encouraging, obviously, for lots of reasons. For me to see the sales of this book being so successful, it's good for me, it's good for my heirs, the czardines, it's good for czarling, it's good for the grand-czardines whenever they come, it's good for Catholic Charities. I have given so much money to Catholic Charities, I have four, get-out-of-purgatory-free passes.

(Laughter and applause).

Anyway...but it makes a larger point, which I think, there's something going on in this country, which has now encouraged people to go into a book store and buy this book and other books like it. We have The Moral Compass which is out, which is a good book. We have The Children's Book of Virtues. There are all sorts of books on values and on virtues and on religion that are now selling in American bookstores that haven't sold before. And this leads me to my thesis about American society and our topic-The Future. I wanted to give you the background on me so you'll know whence I come.

It seems to me that there are three great arenas right now of thought and action, reflection and dispute, which will determine an awful lot about where this country goes. And the first one is where I just started. It's at the level, it's the most subtle, the most abstract one. It's at the level of individual thought and reflection. Let me put a particular focus on it. There are a lot of very smart people, cultural anthropologists and historians on both the left and the right. People whom I have talked to, people I have read, who believe this country is going through a major transformation. A major cultural transformation. That in fact, we might be, we might be going through a fourth great awakening, similar to the other three great awakenings in this nation's history. Religion will be at the bottom of it. That there is an interest now in the country and in the hearts and minds of men and women about things, a fate, matters of ultimate meaning that we have not seen in some time.

A friend of mine points out that the demographics would suggest that this is the direction we may be going. Yuppies...the yuppies are aging, and having tried everything else, they are now thinking about religion, having gone through dieting and jogging and granola and pot and everything else. Many of those approaching 50 or getting passed 50 and are now into my group are starting to think about some of the more ultimate questions. That may well be the case. Something certainly is going on. I now, for personal reasons, follow that New York Times book review very closely, and it's very interesting to see what's going on. It's by no means settled. I'm not saying this is becoming a very religious country and we're going to go through some kind of religious transformation, but it's possible that something major will occur, some signs do indicate stirring of a fairly significant sort. There's a movement called Promise Keepers in this country, which brings men, not women, but men together to talk about their commitments to their families, to their wives and their children. There was the Million Man March which I think the results still aren't in. I think the leader of the march, Farrakhan, is a despicable character and just showed how despicable he was, but I take seriously the professions of earnestness and commitment made by many of the men that participated in that march whether it makes a difference, we shall see. By no means is America becoming a religious society, I mean by no means is it clear that America is going in that direction. If you look at that same New York Times booklist, you will see a lot of contradictory evidence. There is Colin Powell's book, a book about virtue and about character and about his life. It sits there at number one, and then it gets knocked off by Howard Stern's book which is certainly not a religious book.

(Laughter)

By the way, I pointed out a while back that my book, The Book of Virtues, had out sold Howard Stern and had out sold Roseanne. And I said once that it has out sold Howard Stern and Roseanne combined and a friend of mine, and probably a friend of some of yours too, Rush Limbaugh said, "Don't ever say Howard Stern and Roseanne combined. The thought is just too horrible to even contemplate."

(Laughter).

You're worldly people. You know what I'm talking about anyway. So there's Powell, he gets knocked off by Howard Stern's book. There is the Pope's book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and it gets knocked off by O.J. Simpson's book. I should not say, "Knocked off by O.J. Simpson's book, excuse me."

(Laughter).

But come on, you know, let's be clear about that one. Anyway...there are funny trends, contradictory trends, but something is stirring. So that's the level, if you will, of individual reflection. Something's going on in America. Something's going on in terms of people's thoughts about the ultimate questions. The last thirty years was sort of the embrace of environmentalism, hedonism, materialism and those things seem to be ebbing somewhat and yielding some ground to religion in a variety of forms, some kookie, some not so kookie, some traditional, but something is stirring there.

The second area, the second arena is what I call the cultural arena. And this is the fight, if you will, for the education of our children. This is about what is going on in radio and television and the movies. I think it's an extremely important area. It's one of the reasons why I decided not to run for president, I like politics, but I like to visit there and I don't want to live there. And I really think in terms of the future of this country, it's probably much more important what happens to the mass media than what happens in politics. I don't know if you know any teenagers, I suppose you do, but the teenagers that I know in my neighborhood in Chevy Chase, sound like a lot more to me like they're listening to television than they're listening to politicians. It seems to me when they lay out the things that interest them, and when you look at their behaviors, their sensibilities, it seems to me they are formed much more by television advertising and television shows than by congressional subcommittees and by speeches, even by the distinguished speaker, and our colleagues.

The mass media, a relatively new invention, has given us something quite new in American history. The capacity to communicate with people, particularly young people on a constant 24-hour basis, unmediated by adult authority of any kind. So that parents, teachers, schools, no matter how interested and how engaged find that they are on the sidelines often, while other people, whom you cannot vouch for, whom you did not invite into your house, who you have not checked out are communicating directly with your children urging them to a particular view of life of self-indulgence, of behavior, and of indeed, a theory and philosophy of meaning. I'm on my way when I leave here, to Hollywood. I'm giving a speech, I hope a big speech on Saturday night about television advertising. I'm suggesting that there is a message in here about life, which is extremely questionable. As a philosopher I've been through these arguments before a thousand times, and which is, I think, very destructive of American life. I recently had the opportunity to challenge some of this. I joined a colleague, a liberal Democrat, and she and I went up against Time Warner, urging Time Warner to divest itself of some of its worst and most offensive music. Music, not Bob Dylan music, not Tom Petty music, but music that talks and celebrates the beating, torture, mutilation and murder of women. There's just a whole bunch of songs put out by some labels and this is their basic motif. I don't know if you've ever listened to it. I don't know if I'd recommend to you that you should or shouldn't, but it's really quite striking. I mean, I did not grow up in a cocoon, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York which is a real world place. I played football. I've been to a lot of locker rooms. I'm a good Irishman. I've been to a lot of bars. I had a rock and roll band myself, Plato and the Guardians, you may remember them.

(Laugher)

But you probably don't.

...Graham and the Crackers...remember Graham Coventing one of my classmates this year. But the stuff that is out now is truly beyond the pale. That is, it is quite unbelievable to see that people make this stuff, sell it and market it. That people make it and sing it doesn't surprise me. What surprised us was to see that Time Warner, the world's largest, now second largest entertainment company, the company that owns Time Magazine, that is responsible for Warner Brothers would get behind this kind of stuff. So we tried to see them in their boardrooms and try to tell them to get out of the business and we persuaded them. Most recently, Senator Joseph Lieberman and I, with Senator Sam Nunn from Georgia have gone after some of these talk shows on TV. The culture rot show we call them, where you have a 14-year-old girl and her 71-year-old foster father on TV talking about the three children that they had together. And the question we asked is, "What good is served by this?" Ah, the answer they say, of course, is it's free speech. Well, of course, it's free speech, but you still have to choose what it is you say. And why is this serving any good purpose? Well, they say, "We make some money on it." Well, we say, "Can't you make money some other way?" They say, "No we can't." Well, we say, "The Book of Virtues is making money." Do we have to aim low, can't we aim it...can't we raise the level a little bit and still turn a profit? Well, we've had some success with that effort on the talk shows too. It's a funny, funny time. While this religious dimension that I talked about earlier does seem to me to be gaining some footholds in America. Here are these odd sort of plays that we see on television where a 12-year-old girl comes on and talks about the 100 sexual partners she had in one day and the audience hoots at her, the audience, a lot of boys, for the most part, hoots at her and we all watch this on TV and it's brought to us by a soap company, Procter and Gamble. Not anymore. They got out of the business. We wrote them a letter. This is the last thing that should be doing this is a soap company, but you know, but, it's quite extraordinary.

There was a time in human history, which we would regard, I suppose, as relatively uncivilized, when if people behaved in that way they would fall on their knees and seek forgiveness, they would feel terribly ashamed, at least they would not talk about it, but now, it's a ticket for admission to go on one of these shows. I guess what we are saying is what is going on here? And doesn't this mean something to our culture. Aren't we putting stuff into circulation in this country, which can be harmful to us.

Anyway, I believe the fight, may be the most important fight of the next decade, is in the culture. It's about television, it's about radio, it's about movies. It's about what we see in the public square. It's about our classrooms. It's about the signals we send to the young. Plato was very clear. The kinds of symbols and stories are music and art that the young hear and receive and get will probably have more to do about how they are shaped than the particular lessons they learn through their minds, the sensibility works that way. In any case, I think it's a fight worth having.

The last area, and I don't mean last in importance, but the last of the three arenas brings us to contemporary issues and that's the political arena. I think the fundamental task is in the political arena as a political conservative, I believe the fundamental task is to take down this horribly, large behemoth of a welfare state. I think it is very, very important to de-limit government, and re-limit government. To take from the federal government what we can take and give it back to the states, to take from the federal government and what we can give it back to people's own voluntarily organizations, to give it back to communities, to churches, to parents, to schools. I agree with Lamar Alexander, I'm chairman of his campaign, I should say that, full disclosure, but I'm not going to give you a campaign speech. But I agree that with something like welfare, we ought to end the federal welfare program, give the money back to states, they should give it to communities and let people have community foundation programs where churches and other organizations can get involved. I believe that's going to be in the end, a lot more effective than bureaucracies.

In education, I think we should introduce competition by getting rid of the federal bureaucracy, letting parents choose their schools and choose the kinds of education they want for their children. I'm not going to talk about health care because it's been talked about and talked about. You are a more expert than I. Newt will probably say something about it, but it too, is emblematic of the kind of power or interest in seizing power that the federal government has shown over the last few years.

My argument for limiting federal government isn't just that it's too expensive, which it is. It's horribly expensive. And it isn't just that it takes the rights and prerogatives that belong elsewhere, there's a third argument that perhaps in the end may be the most important. And that is when the federal government tends to take over something, it drives out other things which need to be there. It takes the space and occupies it that should be occupied by others. When people are writing horrible tax bills, which we now have to pay, when you're writing your check for these enormous taxes, we now assume that that takes care of welfare. In doing that, we also assume that that takes care of our obligations to welfare. We send a check. We send it to Washington, let Washington solve it. As a result, the federal bureaucracy has gotten a lot wealthier. The federal government has gotten larger. The state has not, to use Marxist phrase, "withered away," it has grown larger and larger and larger. What has withered away are the more important institutions, the mediating institutions of society. The character forming institutions of society, families, neighborhoods, churches, schools, voluntary associations, the great strength, the great backbone of America. Those institutions need to be stronger, relatively, than the federal government needs to be weaker relatively. That's the challenge, I think.

(Applause).

...And that's the struggle in the political area today. This is going to be a knock-down, drag-out election year. It's going to be a knock-down, drag-out primary. I'm for Alexander, I like Dole a lot, I went to the same high school as Pat Buchanan, a Catholic high school. It makes people wonder what they put in the holy water there.

(Laughter)

...Ahm, but I think he could not be more wrong in his prescriptions for economic policy and foreign policy and a number of the social policy issues.

I will end with one political comment and then welcome your questions. I cannot but help, you'll forgive me this Buchanan supporters, but we are here in Atlanta, the home of the Olympics, this is yet one more reason why I hope one of our guys can defeat Pat Buchanan, because Pat Buchanan's version of the Olympics will be South Dakota versus South Carolina. And I think we ought to do better than that. That's not the kind of protectionism we want.

Thank you very much.

(Applause).

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