William Bennett, pop apostle for the moral majority


William Bennett may well be, as the July 17 New Yorker suggests, the pitchman "for the age of the new moral majority."

But is he anything more?

In an excellent effort, writer Michael Kelly profiles "The Man of the Minute," the former drug czar and education secretary who has struck it rich as a pop apostle of morals. His 1992 compilation, "The Book of Virtues," has earned him an estimated $5 million already and explains his $40,000-per-speech fee.

Mr. Kelly discerns a tension between an "intellectual ideologue" and "the showman." He terms him an opportunist, an "overbearing ex-jock" who's a bully, rude, a "Barnumesque sensationalist" and a "self-important sermonizer" quick to lose interest in anything if he's not the center of attention.

"And yet, equally inarguably, the 51-year-old Bennett is genuine in the passion of his preaching, and serious in his concerns over the state of the culture," writes Mr. Kelly. "He cares about real things that matter," such as the mess of drugs, black America and our education system, respectively.

He is, Mr. Kelly finds, a faithful and churchgoing father and husband who, unlike many conservatives, is as quick to bash white middle-class "walk-out husbands" as he is poor, inner-city black ones.

Mr. Kelly argues that despite real differences between the left and right in dealing with society's moral decline, there is an underlying consensus that much is amiss, and Mr. Bennett perceives that better than anyone in politics.

That consensus, he argues, was underscored by Mr. Bennett's own teaming with a black female Democrat, DeLores Tucker, in pressuring Time Warner to do something about its gangsta-rap division. It was a much-publicized move applauded, as we now know, by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., in nnTC Hollywood speech, and in this story by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin.

Mr. Coffin, a well-known peace activist and a one-time mentor of the one-time liberal Mr. Bennett, lauds Mr. Bennett for doing what many right-wingers won't -- attack the permissiveness of the corporation, not just of individuals.

And his softer edges are revealed in a comparison of him and ideologue and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. They both might seem similar -- conservative, Irish-American pols (and graduates of the same college, Gonzaga -- but Mr. Bennett here argues that Mr. Buchanan's brand of moralism is "flirting with fascism," and he is correct.

But, ultimately, Mr. Bennett is portrayed by Mr. Kelly as somewhat of a coward, a passionate moralist without the nerve to "fight for keeps" and run for office -- president, vice president, something substantial.

Mr. Bennett is too inclined to tackle a topic and then move on to something else, as he himself admits in reference to his brief drug czar tenure ("I was wrong to leave").

And now, it appears, having perhaps exhausted his interest in the Time Warner bashing, he'll do the same.

Briefly noted

Having read actor Kevin Costner's defense of the world's costliest movie in the July 14 Entertainment Weekly, the something-like-$160-million "Waterworld," can I simply ask this: How could I possibly have forgotten that Newsweek had claimed Mr. Costner had his hair computer enhanced? Thank goodness, he denies that here. It's safe to see the film.

. . . July 10 In These Times' "Telecon" correctly argues that the major new telecommunications bills passed by the Senate -- allowing cable, local phone and long-distance phone firms to get into one another's businesses and ditching most cable-TV rate regulations -- are skewed heavily toward interests of major corporations, with hopes uninspiring at the moment for creating a non-commercial, nonprofit communications system.

. . . July Esquire has a fine profile of Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander by Tom Junod, who suggests Mr. Alexander is deeply disingenuous in crafting a common-man image and finds examples suggesting Mr. Alexander plays loose with facts about the underpinning of his supposed populism.

. . . And July 10 McCall's seeks summer reading suggestions from an eminent literary panel -- the cast of "Baywatch": Pam Anderson urges "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior," by Dan Millman, and David Hasselhoff suggests "Lincoln at Gettysburg," by Garry Wills. Just joking on the last. Mr. Hunk goes for "The Power of Positive Thinking," by Norman Vincent Peale.

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