BRIAN LAMB, HOST: William J. Bennett, what's "The Book of Virtues" all about?
WILLIAM J. BENNETT, AUTHOR, "THE BOOK OF VIRTUES:" It's about the virtues, it's about self-discipline and courage, compassion, faith, friendship, the other virtues. It's about the hard realities that constitute the virtues. We used to teach the virtues in the schools. They are very important things for young people to learn. I'll go to the end of my story first.
Increasingly, I think as I do public policy -- I've had jobs in the Cabinet -- this is the bottom line; this is where it comes home; this is what it is all about with teaching of those good, resilient lessons about right and wrong. Virtue is about the strengthening of the character of the young. That was the purpose of this book, to restore the notion of moral education to a respectable place in our deliberations and to give people a book by means of which they could do it. When I was secretary of education, I used to say we need to teach the virtues or values in the schools in a proper way. People would say, "Whose virtues? Whose values?" I said, "Ours." They said, "What do you mean?" I said, "If ever I have the time, I'll show you." Well, I have the time, and I've put it together in this book.
LAMB: Who defines what a virtue is?
BENNETT: We do. I mean, I think this is a common set of ideas and ideals. There are stories here from our American tradition. There are stories from Europe, from Asia, from Africa, from all around the world. There is not much disagreement on the virtues, really. C. S. Lewis said once, "You can't invent a new color, and you can't invent a new virtue." There either is courage and compassion and fidelity to task and responsibility, or there isn't. These are things by means of which we keep society together, keep ourselves together, or we don't. And they are pretty much the same society to society.
LAMB: In the back of your book you've got a picture of your family.
BENNETT: Virtuous bunch.
LAMB: Who are they?
BENNETT: The young looking woman on the right is my wife Elayne -- my first wife and only wife, Elayne. My two boys are John Bennett, who is sitting there on my lap. He's 9. That's Joseph Bennett sitting on Elayne's lap. He's 4.
LAMB: Have you tried out any of these stories on these kids?
BENNETT: Absolutely. These have been Bennett-tested at home. We read these stories to the kids before while I was putting the book together and got their reaction to them. They're interested that I did this. Actually, they're interested that I put the book together. But, yes, if it didn't take with the Bennett kids, then I became dubious as to whether to leave it in the book. We haven't used all of the material in the book. Some of this material is for grown-ups. Each chapter is set up so that it's the easy stuff first, and then it gets harder as we go through the chapter. But most of these stories are things that we've read at home or said at home. The faith chapter begins with something we say every night at our house, "Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep," so a lot of this is familiar to them, and a lot of it is familiar to me. These are things that I have valued and treasured over the years, but there are some new things, too.
LAMB: Besides the last thing you say before they go to bed, how do you deal with the kids? Do you read them to them? Do you explain them to them?
BENNETT: No, I mean, there is reading time in our house. We have a rule: no TV during the week. We have not had this rule forever. We adopted it under some duress. We just decided this was getting out of hand, so no TV -- not even C-SPAN -- during the week. The kids adapted to it fine. But at night after bath time we read, usually together if I'm home -- I travel a lot, too much. But if I don't, Elayne will read to the boys. But I try to be there and we just read the story.
We read "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," which is in this book which is a wonderful story. We just read it to them, and we usually don't have a discussion about it. The stories, if they are good, make their own point and they make them in their own way. Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, the people who tell these stories in this book, tell them very well. It doesn't need a lot of commentary. There are some things in here, I think, that you'd want to have a discussion about, some of the excerpts from Aristotle or Plato. There is a magic, Brian, I think, to this book because there is a magic to the stories. I didn't write these stories; other people did. There is a magic to the phrase that begins, "Once upon a time." If what follows after that is worthy of that first sentence, you can capture a child's imagination, and I believe these stories work as well today as they ever did because they are real.
LAMB: Why did you decide no TV?
BENNETT: The kids were watching too much. It was too easy to turn to the TV instead of doing something else. I mean, our kids get a good steady diet of instruction from us, I think. John Bennett goes to a very good school. Joseph is in a pre-kindergarten nursery a couple hours a day. I think they have lots of intellectual stimulation, but the problem was, as Elayne put it, these kids, when they don't have anything to do, they immediately turn to the TV instead of thinking of what else they should be doing. Once we adopted the rules -- it's funny, we kind of screwed up our courage and said, you know, we've got to stand together husband and wife. It's the interesting thing about parenthood. I mean, we're two big, grown-up people, and these are two relatively small people. We still had to screw up our courage and say, "We're going to withstand it. Whatever they say about TV, we're going to withstand it." But they said OK, and they adjusted to it. Now they do more interesting things with their time. They read, they play games with each other, they're outside raking leaves, not long ago was John Bennett. So quite miraculous things can happen.
LAMB: Why is reading a better thing to do with your time than watching television?
BENNETT: Because it stimulates more muscle in the brain and the imagination. You can't get television wrong. There is no remedial television; there is no advanced television. It's just passive. You're just sitting there and it's just flowing over you. When you're reading, your mind is engaged. If you could take a picture of the brain while you're reading, you'll see that is much more active than when it's watching TV. Of course, you're creating the picture in your own mind of what's going on, and there is a kind of ongoing dialog with the story, at least when I'm reading one.
I go back over parts. I want to read that sentence again; I'll go back. I suppose we could do that with TV now -- if the thing's on tape, you can record it and flip back --but somehow it isn't the same. But it draws you out of your current place in time in a way that I don't think television does. Irving Howe said once, reading still has an unparalleled power for transcending your particular circumstance in getting in the shoes of somebody else. I believe that's right. I'm not a TV basher; I'm not a movie basher. I think there is a lot of stuff that's on that shouldn't be, but there is something about reading. It's a quiet time for the soul, too. It's a quiet activity, and I think life is too noisy. Life in Washington is sure too noisy. My life's too noisy. There is something about reading -- and reading with children -- that slows down the pace of life and quiets the noise of life.
LAMB: How did you do this?
BENNETT: Piles of old books. I did it with the help of a good friend, John Cribb, who agreed to be sort of a research assistant and gofer on this project. John used to work with me at the Department of Education. He found these wonderful old books -- great tales, great stories, heroes. We went through all these books and read all these stories and decided whether they were candidates or not. I'm working in the wrong order. First I made a list of all my favorites. There were things that just had to be in here because these are things that have been touchstones for me.
LAMB: Name a couple.
BENNETT: Faulkner's acceptance speech when he got the Nobel Prize, when he talked about modern literature. He talked about that man will endure and that we needed to write of the heart and soul of man. Terrific story. Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail -- every time I've taught a class, I've taught that important letter. A little thing in here about Ernest Shackleton, who is the man who in England in the early part of the century almost got to the South Pole, but it's an advertisement he put up in the newspaper and in a store in England. He said, "Wanted, men for journey. Low pay, hazardous task, likelihood of return not much, low wages." He was overwhelmed with people who signed up for the expedition to the South Pole. It just tells us something about risk and people willing to take a risk. Those stories of the South Pole were very important to me.
As a boy I read all these adventure stories, so they're still in there. "The Enchanted Bluff," which is a story by Willa Cather about boys camping at night and looking at the stars and talking. Tom Sawyer is in there -- painting the fence, whitewashing the fence. It's a classic. There is a lot of Lincoln in this book. There is a wonderful story called "The Magic Thread," and it's about a little boy who meets a fairy who says, "Here's a thread. If you pull on the thread, you can make your life shorter. You can run through weeks and days and months at a time. Of course, he pulls on the thread whenever he gets in an unpleasant situation, and his life starts to go by very quickly and some very interesting things happen to him.
LAMB: When did you start it?
BENNETT: I guess the clever answer would be I started when I was 3 or 4 years old, when people started reading stories to me. I had the idea when I was secretary of education reading stuff that I saw in the schools. I saw that a lot of it was just really kind of shallow. It wasn't very moving -- kind of vanilla. I thought, the old stories are really better than this; we can do better than this. So I started to take notes and jot down some things. I found when I was in the schools as secretary of education, I would tell old stories and I would tell some of these stories. The Declaration of Independence was something I taught when I was secretary of education, and that part of that is in here. So I think it really took form then because I said, when I finish this job I want to put together a book that I think would be useful for parents and teachers to teach the virtues because it is the great neglected task of our time.
LAMB: You make a point in the beginning that this is nonpartisan, uninvolved, but on the back I notice you've got five people that have endorsed you: Rush Limbaugh, Cal Thomas, Margaret Thatcher, Robert Coles and Roger Staubach. Were those your decisions?
BENNETT: The decision to put those on was Simon & Schuster's. I sent Simon & Schuster a dozen or 15 quotations, and then they had some. They picked the ones they wanted. I think they picked them because of what the people said. Cal Thomas is a conservative -- that's right, I am a conservative -- but I think they picked it because of what he said. What he said about me was about the nicest thing anybody has said.
LAMB: He said, "William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education and drug czar, may be as close an intellectual likeness to Lewis as America has had at the national level," meaning C. S. Lewis. Who was he?
BENNETT: He was a great English intellectual, thinker, teacher, writer. He wrote "Mere Christianity." He wrote "The Abolition of Man." He wrote some of the most thoughtful stuff written this century. He's excerpted in the book in a little essay called "Men Without Chests." He's excerpted a couple of places where he talks about the need to train the sensibility of the young. So I'm very proud of the quote. I'm proud of the association. I was pleased, too, with Robert Coles.
LAMB: Who is he?
BENNETT: He is a psychiatrist who teaches psychiatry at Harvard. I don't think he is a conservative by any stretch of the imagination. What Coles had to say was very encouraging to me.
LAMB: Let me read it: "This book with its wonderfully suggestive, inspiring literature hums with moral energy and will be of enormous help to all of us parents and teachers and to our children and our students. A carefully selected collection that fills an aching void in this secular society."
BENNETT: See, the world in which I live, I'm not likely to get in trouble for having some conservatives blurb my book. One would expect that. But Professor Coles at Harvard, who has blurbed my book, might be in trouble with some of his faculty, colleagues, for praising my book. But I'm glad he did. Robert Coles wrote about the children of poverty. Remember the children in Mississippi who played with the Coles dolls? He, I think, is probably about the most astute observer in this country from the medical perspective of the problems of young people, particularly the moral problems of young people, and the importance of moral education. That's why I wanted to send him a book.
LAMB: Rush Limbaugh: "Sometime ago in search of edification and enlightenment, I asked Bill Bennett to compile for me my own personal reading list of significant works." Is that true?
BENNETT: Yes, he did. There is a bit of Limbaugh hyperbole in here but, yes, Rush asked me for a reading list, and I've been working on it. The first thing on the reading list I sent was C. S. Lewis, and he's working his way through it.
LAMB: What do you think he's doing to the discussion in the United States?
BENNETT: He's certainly moving it along. He's certainly got a large audience -- I guess larger audience than anyone else. I think, in terms of the conservative discussion in America, he is the most important person speaking right now in terms of a large audience. A lot of people don't like him; they don't like his humor. I do like him. I generally like his humor almost all the time. The thing that he is doing is showing the conservatives have a sense of humor. It's very important because it's very easy to caricature. It's too easy to caricature conservatives, sort of uptight and humorless because some of them are. Limbaugh brings a sense of humor to these deliberations and discussions which is very, very important. Also, politics deserves to have fun made of it. It's kind of ridiculous at times.
LAMB: What are you doing on most days?
BENNETT: On most days, it's hard to tell. I might be doing some writing. I might be giving a speech. Not long ago I was involved in some of the election campaigns for this past November 2. I was testifying, not long ago, on the drug issue before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I'm very much involved in the educational choice debates. Doing a lot.
LAMB: Where do you hang your hat?
BENNETT: I hang my hat in Empower America, which is a conservative advocacy group. My copartners are Jack Kemp and Jeane Kirkpatrick, and it's a very interesting place, a good place.
LAMB: In a program we did sometime ago, I asked Joe McQuaid, who is the editor of the Manchester Union Leader, "Who do you support for 1996, or who do they like in New Hampshire?" He said, "Jack Kemp is one of my favorites, and we're still waiting for old Bill Bennett to make up his mind." Have you made up your mind yet?
BENNETT: No, no. I haven't figured out whether this is something I should do. I've got a lot of things to do. I'm working on a lot of fronts. I'm speaking, I'm writing and doing this work with Empower America. I have a feeling I'm having a conversation with a lot of people about things that matter to me. Nothing matters more than this stuff. I'd like to put off that decision. I hate the idea that you've got to run for president for three years or even two years or even an year. I'd like to leave the question open.
Friends tell me, "If you leave it open, it will be gone. It will be over because you've got to organize your PAC, you got to start asking people for money, blah, blah, blah." If that's the case, then it'll be over. But that's all right. I did not grow up eager to do this sort of thing. I never ran for any offices in college or anything. When I set my life before me some time in college about things I might do, this was not one of them. I got into politics in a sort of backwards way. I was chosen by Ronald Reagan to be chairman of his National Endowment for the Humanities because, frankly, there were so few professors in the humanities who had voted for Ronald Reagan. There were about five of us. He had a small group from which to choose.
LAMB: And where were you right before that?
BENNETT: I was at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina running an institute for advanced study in the humanities, so that was a great opportunity but sort of a surprise. We'll see. What's interesting to me is that things that I care about like the things in this book and the education of the young and the place of right and wrong in public policy, these are things that actually they are very interesting to the American people. They're prepared to have a conversation on these things because we should have a conversation on these things.
I've been arguing around the country that the most serious cause of our problems is not insufficient government or insufficient money but moral breakdown, moral breakdown, the fact that these virtues, really to bring it right back to this book, are not as taken seriously as they used to be, either by teachers or by parents or by people making public policy and, therefore, by children. I don't mean to paint with too broad a brush. A lot of parents do take this very seriously, and some teachers do, too. But it used to be understood by people who ran universities and who ran schools that the major purpose of education was moral improvement. Jefferson said, "It's the improvement of the intellectual and moral faculties of the young." John Locke said, "It's virtue that we aim at in education. Virtue. Hard virtue, not the subtle arts of shifting." "The subtle arts of shifting" -- is a great phrase for Washington. Subtle arts of shifting -- have a lot of that in this town. It was at least regarded as the equal of intellectual development, and now it's sort of an embarrassment to people. They say, "How do we do it? And whose values?" Again, I think this book is an answer to it. If you ask me what the major problem is in America, I would tell you I think it is the moral education of the young.
LAMB: Let me ask you about Abraham Lincoln. He's big in your book. Can you remember how many different . . .
BENNETT: Probably about a half a dozen.
LAMB: You see Abraham Lincoln everywhere on every politician's desk. How can he be everything to all politicians?
BENNETT: I think the great people do not speak in a narrow party way. They speak broad truth and general truth -- although he was Republican, for the record.
LAMB: Would he be a Republican today?
BENNETT: I think so. I think so. I think that it is the broad structure, the broad outlines, of Ronald Reagan's philosophy that he would find most consistent. But there are few lessons in here from George Washington, too -- and no particular party label there that we'll use -- but he's every bit as important as well for the purposes of this book. But why is Lincoln in this book? Because of his letter to Mrs. Bixby -- the letter about all her sons who were killed. It was factual.
LAMB: In the Civil War?
BENNETT: Yes. Five sons. It wasn't actually five. It was a mistake, but they told Lincoln it was five and he wrote this letter. It's about compassion. It's about his understanding, his compassion for her, and it's some of the most beautiful rhetoric.
LAMB: Do you think he actually wrote it himself?
BENNETT: Oh, yes. Sure.
LAMB: Would any president today write this?
BENNETT: George Bush would. Not that George Bush would have the rhetoric of Lincoln, but George Bush wrote any number of personal notes. I have any number from him. I don't know if Bill Clinton does or not, but some presidents do. Yes, Lincoln wrote this; otherwise there is some speech writer for Lincoln that we don't know about but we need to find out about who wrote the second inaugural and some of these others. But what he speaks about, because he speaks to principle, because he speaks to timeless ideal, he is invoked by all parties. That's a good thing. It doesn't bother me that Democrats and people I disagree with invoke Lincoln. The more they do, the more it reminds us that we should proceed from common principles at least. The great political thinkers always step out of their time and move to a more transcendent point and perspective. That's what the great political leaders do.
LAMB: Who are your favorite political thinkers?
BENNETT: Of all time?
LAMB: Of all time, from St. Augustine to Plato to today's.
BENNETT: Plato is in here a lot and Aristotle. It's been said that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato and Aristotle. Probably true. If they didn't think of it at all, it probably wasn't worth thinking of. There is a lot in here by them about friendship and about leadership and about courage -- very, very smart people. Lincoln we've mentioned. James Madison has a very special place for me. I've read a lot of Madison. I've read all the biographies of Madison. There is a great exchange of letters in here between Madison and Jefferson, these two old men. They write to each other very close to the time of Jefferson's death. Jefferson writes to Madison, "Take care of me when dead." It's a beautiful phrase; that is, don't let them mess up the record. Don't let them say things about me that aren't true. Don't let them rewrite history. We see that in the passing of almost every president, I think, in our time.
Madison writes back and says, in effect, "I won't" and says toward the end of his letter, "I think history will judge that we did a good job, that we were trying to work for the common good." This is in the chapter on friendship. I say in the little introductory notes -- I have introductory notes in front of each of the 370 entries – “Has there ever been a more consequential friendship in public life than that between Jefferson and Madison?" If a correspondence between two friends here over time shaped a country, that's quite remarkable. I have that very close to the friendship between David and Jonathan from the Bible.
LAMB: Are there another 370 you could put into another book like this?
BENNETT: Sure, probably thousands. But I've been back and forth though this book. There are very few things in this book that you or anyone else could persuade me to remove. My editor had a tough time, you know, "Can we get this down a little bit?" I said, "No, this has to stay." They were very good at Simon & Schuster. They helped publish this 850-page book. But, yes, you probably could, but this is a personal book, too, for me. If we were talking about rock 'n' roll, I'd talk about my greatest hits or someone's greatest hits. But these are my favorite stories. These are the things that are touchstones for me. These are a lot of the stories that were taught to me that remained sort of bedrocks for me. I think also these are, if you will, the stories that will not die and the lessons that will not die. These things have a resonance today that's as great if not greater than ever before because these things remain true. These are hard truths.
One of the risks of giving this thing a title "The Book of Virtues" is that people think, oh, this is going to be sort of namby-pamby stuff. This is hard stuff. This is real stuff. It reminds us when stories were told to children in the old days. They were stories about real life. There is a lot in here about being born and dying and suffering and sacrificing. This was the stuff in which kids were raised. It's not the feel-good stuff of today. There are no lessons in here to have self-esteem, just to feel good about yourself because you're a nice person. The lessons in here are you should have regard for yourself because you're made in the image of God and you should have regard for yourself if you've earned it, if you've done something right. There are lots of lessons in here about work and responsibility. They were not less realistic in the old days; they were more realistic.
As you read these short stories and see the way children converse in these stories, you'll see that there was a moral literacy and a general literacy about the young that we don't have now. I think this takes us back to when we were better, frankly, because we associated the kind of lives we lead as a more important thing in our life than we do now. The answer to the question, what's most important in life, the way this book answers it, is to be a good person, to be a worthy servant, to be a good husband, to do a good job, to be a good steward. That had about it a seriousness of purpose which I'm not sure we have now. Whatever this book isn't, it's not a collection of essays about aimlessness.
LAMB: Can you be a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, can you be of any political persuasion and still agree with all this?
BENNETT: Yes, I think so, provided that one is prepared at the end of it to perhaps correct the balance in the political debate. If there is one lesson that this book teaches, it's of personal responsibility; that we are individuals. We are responsible for ourselves. There are some people because of circumstance of birth or defect or accident who are not responsible for themselves, but by and large all of us are and must accept that. The idea of virtue is premised on the notion of free will and that people exercise free will. If you don't believe that -- it's too bad if you don't. You shouldn't be teaching the young if you don't. But if one is prepared to accept and take seriously the notion of personal responsibility, you bet. But that does have implications. I think that does mean that one would look at politics in a somewhat different way, the way some people are looking at it now. They would expect more of the individual and less of everybody else and less of the state. So I think if one takes the notion of virtue seriously, one takes the notion of personal responsibility seriously. One is less likely to be whiny about being taken care of, and there is whining on the right and there is whining on the left. There is, in our time, an awful lot of people who would like the government to take care of them. I think we tend to think that liberals ask the government to do more than conservatives do, and that's probably true. But there are Republicans who are just as happy to have government take some responsibility for their lives as to take it themselves. The answer is yes.
LAMB: The Ten Commandments is one of the 370 items. Do you have to believe in God?
BENNETT: To appreciate this book?
LAMB: To buy all of this, to be a virtuous person.
BENNETT: No, not to buy. To buy all of it, yes. But you don't have to buy all of it. Look, I believe in God. I also believe in what George Washington said, that it's hard to maintain national morality, a sense of right and wrong in the republic, without religion. I think that's a fact, and I think we're witnessing that right now. But, no, there are people who have read these stories who don't believe in God, who see the moral point of the stories. I know people who are agnostic, atheistic, who are good people. I studied philosophy. I did a Ph.D.; I used to teach. I think at the end of the day finally after having read C. S. Lewis and just about everybody else on the subject, I think it's hard to make sense of morality without religion, and I think religion is the anchor of most people's morality. It's a good anchor. Here again, I wouldn't think the Democrats, Republicans would have to divide or conservatives or liberals. People need to understand that the American people are basically a very religious people. They take their religion pretty seriously. This book, in effect, says if you are, you should take your religion seriously because if you believe in what the world's religions teach -- Christianity, Judaism -- then the proper conduct of your life is a very important priority.
LAMB: If you were asked by a stranger outside of this country to tell you the state of America and the things that you don't like or like right now, what would you tell him?
BENNETT: I'd tell him it's still the greatest country in the world, but we're in cultural decline. We have a very serious problem in crime and in education and in family breakup, that many of our most important institutions are not as healthy and strong as they used to be. I did something called an index of leading cultural indicators six, seven months ago, in which we measured the moral, behavioral, social condition of American life and found a lot of things that were distressing. I think most people would agree.
Back to your question about politics, I think Senator Moynihan would agree on that. I think William Galston, who is President Clinton's domestic policy advisor, would agree on that. I think now we've got almost everybody agreeing that the collapse of these critical institutions is having a real terrible effect on American life, particularly on our children. So that's what I'd say. I'm proud to be an American. It's the greatest country in the world. I'm still glad I live here, but I'm concerned for my kids and for other people's kids that we get back to what we know to be true and to put our best foot forward to have more of what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" dominate our life and discussion. I am tired of what I call the whining of America. Everybody's whining; everybody has some complaint.
The worst part of TV, it seems to me, is these talk shows where everybody comes on and whines. It's real whining. Children are taught not to whine. They are taught in these stories to take care of themselves -- fix it, do something about it, don't whine. Go to work, do your homework, take care of your sister, take care of your brother. We could use a little bit of this hard virtue right now. One of the stories in this book that is a favorite of mine is a diary account of a little girl from the Donner party. Remember the Donner party going west, crossing the Sierra Nevada? People die on this wagon train trip. There's a story about cannibalism, possibly there was on the trip. People died in the snow--husbands died, wives died, mothers died, children were separated. She writes in her diary, little Lizzie Donner, and says it was a hard winter. That's her comment. I mean, tough, resilient. Could we withstand that a hundred years later? I'm not sure. We have an awful lot going for us in this country. But do we have the moral resources we had in other generations? I'm not sure. One of the old Greeks says that men can survive deprivation and poverty, but can they survive affluence? It's a good question. What has happened to the spirit of man, the spirit of democracy in America? I think that has a lot to do with those institutions, and key to those institutions are places like families and churches and schools.
LAMB: I asked your brother Robert Bennett, the lawyer in town...
BENNETT: The lawyer in town, boy, that's right.
LAMB: …a couple of months ago when we chatted about you, and I should ask you about him. Did your parents teach you ethics?
BENNETT: Yes, my parents were, it may surprise some people, divorced early on. I was 5 years old. My mother essentially raised my brother and me. We saw our father on weekends and a grandmother who was around, and later on a step-mother entered our lives, who was a great source of instruction to us. But we had a number of people. Yes, my mother read some of these stories to us. I was read many of these at school. Reading was a very big thing.
LAMB: What kind of school?
BENNETT: I went to public school, and then I went to Catholic school. But, yes, I learned many of these stories and lessons at home and in school but also just kind of along the way. I can't pinpoint exactly. Someone handed me something, said, "Read this. Read that." I don't know, where do you get your list of all the things that matter to you? A lot of it is serendipity, the things that end up being your favorites.
LAMB: Where was home?
BENNETT: Brooklyn, New York. But there was a lot of teaching by example, too, and my brother was a good teacher. He taught me about being a brother. He taught me family values. He taught a lot.
LAMB: Younger or older?
BENNETT: He's four years older.
LAMB: Did you get along when you were kids?
BENNETT: When I was little, I was his punching bag, and all of a sudden I got to be a lot bigger than he was. Then I said, "Now it's my turn to make you the punching bag." He said, "No, not so fast." Then he went off to college, so that was that. But we got along pretty well. He took it upon himself to kind of be a big brother and protect me in the absence of a father. But the lessons keep coming up. I have to tell you I think that I've learned as much being a father about these things and what I've learned from my wife, her example. I say in the introduction of the book, ironically, you asked early on, "Were these stories read to the Bennett boys?" Yes, a lot of them were read by Elayne because sometimes I came home and fell asleep, so she ended up reading these stories to the kids. But you learn about the virtues in marriage, you learn about the importance of these things and, in teaching these things to your kids, you learn about them again. Although I was trained in philosophy, I have to say I think it is these stories and these poems and these little essays that really do a better job at teaching it and encapsulating it for children than do the long philosophical debates that we have later on in life.
LAMB: Where did you meet Elayne?
BENNETT: I met Elayne in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was a blind date.
LAMB: How long ago?
BENNETT: It was about 12 years ago.
LAMB: What were you doing then?
BENNETT: I was running the National Humanities Center.
LAMB: You were still doing that. When did you leave Brooklyn?
BENNETT: Left Brooklyn when I was 13 years old, 1957. Came here to Washington, went to high school here and then went on to college at Williams College, Massachusetts.
LAMB: And why did you do that?
BENNETT: When I started college, I wanted to major in something easy and get through as easily as possible and go out and make a lot of money in advertising, believe it or not. Then I ran into a philosophy course. I ran into Plato here -- it was excerpted in this book -- this philosophy professor. I got all interested in the study of philosophy, and I wanted to pin Socrates -- I wanted to refute him. I found myself in the library and thinking and arguing, and I was caught up. I was caught. They caught me, and I was captured by my interest in this, went on to do a Ph.D. in philosophy.
LAMB: Who was Socrates?
BENNETT: Socrates is the great interrogator in Plato's Dialogues.
LAMB: Why did you want to pin him?
BENNETT: I wanted to get him down because he was too smart, and I thought I was smart. I thought that I could do better than 2,000 years of philosophers; I could find a way to refute him. Of course, the harder I tried, the worse it got and the worse pinned I got, but that's the way a lot of people have gotten into the study of philosophy.
LAMB: And you left Williams College and went where?
BENNETT: The University of Texas.
LAMB: To do what?
BENNETT: Get a Ph.D. in philosophy.
LAMB: What was your dissertation about?
BENNETT: My first dissertation was about Kant and Dewey. My advisor, a man named John Silber, who is president of Boston University, ran for governor of Massachusetts, said, "This dissertation is unacceptable." A 225-page dissertation. I threw it away, and I wrote another one that was on social contract theory.
LAMB: Why did he say it was unacceptable?
BENNETT: He thought it was. He was right. It wasn't that good. He had high standards and thought I had just sort of floated through it. I had put some effort in, but not enough, so he wanted to show that he was willing to throw away a 225-page dissertation.
LAMB: Was he back then just like he is today and what we saw at Boston?
BENNETT: Fiercer, fiercer. Yes, he was really tough. He was a great teacher. He held the bar real high. After I worked for Silber, the other jobs I had were relatively easy.
LAMB: What did he teach you?
BENNETT: He taught me philosophy.
LAMB: Besides philosophy. Did he teach you about the way you approach life or students?
BENNETT: The importance of high standards, high expectations, that you can do a lot more work than you think you can, the lameness of most of our excuses. He's a hard driver and was a hard driver by example.
LAMB: What did you do after you got your Ph.D.?
BENNETT: I went to Mississippi and taught for a year, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and then I went to law school at Harvard.
LAMB: Why did you go to law school?
BENNETT: My brother Bob said, "If you finish the graduate work and you're of a mind, go to law school. It might come in handy sometime." I was interested in law when I got out of college, although I wasn't interested in practicing law. I was interested in legal theory and jurisprudence, so I went to Harvard Law School and studied with some of the great minds there -- Paul Freund and Lon Fuller and others. It was a very good and interesting time. It was also the time when campuses were blowing up with the student disruptions and so on, so it was a very interesting time to be in Cambridge, Mass. I had my dissertation with me. I wrote my second dissertation while in law school and graduated 1971.
LAMB: Then what?
BENNETT: Then I went to work for John Silber at Boston University. Once I got my Ph.D., he thought I'd passed muster so he gave me a job. I was assistant to the president for student riots, really. There were a lot of riots in those days. I would escort Marine recruiters onto campus for interviews with two or three students who wanted to interview the Marines through the protests of the 700 or 800 students who didn't want the Marines anywhere near campus. Those were interesting times.
LAMB: How long did you work for him?
BENNETT: I worked for him for five years.
LAMB: Then what?
BENNETT: Then I went to North Carolina, to the National Humanities Center.
LAMB: Somewhere along the way you were a Democrat.
BENNETT: Oh, yes, I was a Democrat all the way until my second job in the Reagan administration, until I became secretary of education. I told Ronald Reagan when I took the secretary of education job, "I'm a Democrat." He said, "I know. It's okay. I used to be one, too." I stayed a Democrat until I couldn't stand it any more, and then I switched.
LAMB: You had three jobs -- education, drug czar and humanities.
BENNETT: Yes, sir.
LAMB: Which one was the biggest in the number of people and budget?
BENNETT: Oh, the Department of Education by far -- budget of a small country, $15 billion, $16 billion at the time, twice that now -- 7,000 or 8,000 employees, I think. Clearly the biggest.
LAMB: What did you learn about management and managing people in those three jobs in government?
BENNETT: I learned at the Department of Education that the bureaucracy goes on no matter what happens, no matter what the elections are. I was up there, secretary of education, spinning the wheel to the right, spinning the wheel to the left -- let's go this way, let's go that way -- yet the barge of state was just moving down the water just like it always had. I went down and I saw that the wheel I had had a lot of rope attached to it, but it wasn't attached to anything else. I think the steering mechanism wasn't attached to the wheels so the bureaucracy was just going without me, and they have a way of doing it.
I noticed Mr. Gore's reinventing government proposal, which is very interesting and in many ways very good. I hope they contain the bureaucracy. It's big. It has a mind and life of its own. But we got it under control eventually, and that was a lot of fun, that job. We visited schools, my wife's advice, go visit schools, and in the course of that tour got some ideas about some books and things that we should be using in the schools.
LAMB: As you look back on those three jobs, do we need those three? I know that the drug czars change.
BENNETT: Don't need a chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, don't need humanities endowment at all.
LAMB: How big was that, by the way?
BENNETT: One hundred and twenty million -- tiny by Washington's standards, but most people in America would rightly regard that as real money. It's now, I guess, $170 million.
LAMB: Why don't you need it?
BENNETT: Because the humanities will flourish without the federal government and probably, on balance, will do better. There are some nice things it did -- some of the books and some of the research projects -- but when the federal government is there dispensing money and sending signals, it tends to upset the balance in the intellectual community. People start to tailor their work, even unconsciously, many of them, so it will fit with what the people in Washington want. That's a very dangerous thing to do, both in the humanities and the arts. I think we'd be better off without it
LAMB: Could you shut the Endowment for the Humanities down anytime in the future if you wanted to?
BENNETT: Politically? No. It's impossible.
BENNETT: There are just too many supporters on the Hill. It's hard to shut any program down in Washington. Everybody's discovered that. But, yes, you wouldn't notice much difference in the country if you didn't. You wouldn't notice much difference if you didn't have a Department of Education. You might still want to help in a number of ways. I think you'd still probably want to have special programs for scholarships. I think you still might want to have special program in special education. But the states could do a lot of that; locales could do a lot of that. The federal Department of Education, I think, tips the balance in ways that are not good. I don't know if you need a permanent drug czar in Washington, but this at least is a clear federal responsibility, the protection of the citizenry, and drugs are a threat to the citizenry.
LAMB: How big was that organization that you were in?
BENNETT: It wasn't very big. It was about 125 people, but it was a major big deal at the time. You'll remember in 1989 it was clearly the number one issue in the country. We had the attention of the president and the attention of the Congress, and I'm very pleased with what we did. It was an interesting and tough job. I saw things I never saw before and I don't need to see again. I saw crack houses. I went to 105 cities and went to the worse places in those cities and saw things that I didn't know were going on in American lives. It was pretty ugly stuff.
LAMB: What did you learn about leadership? Of all the techniques that leaders use, what did you find worked?
BENNETT: Telling the truth works very effectively -- to call them as you see them. Not everybody agrees with me on everything, by any means. My wife doesn't agree with me on everything. But one of the things that I find puzzling about Washington is the timidity of a lot of people. They talk to the American people as if they were children. They have these sort of faked-up prose styles and campaign styles. People do not have to agree with you to respect you, and most Americans want it straight. They are not children, and they don't want to be treated as children. The more we treat them as children, the more cynical they become and the worse we get. So we laid it out pretty straight. I've had a lot of people out there in the public come up to me on airplanes and elsewhere and say, "I don't agree with you, but I like the way you laid it out." I think one of the first responsibilities of leadership in our time is to tell the unvarnished truth. If you don't think there should be an Endowment for the Humanities, say so. If you think there is too much government, say so. Stop beating around the bush.
LAMB: Did you say it then?
BENNETT: Yes, you bet I did. You bet I did.
LAMB: Did you every ask anybody to shut the humanities endowment down when you were there?
BENNETT: I said we didn't need the money and, yes, when I was asked whether we needed a National Endowment for the Humanities, I said we did not. Or I was asked did we need a Department of Education; I said we did not. I've been pretty consistent, ornery but consistent.
LAMB: What about the drug situation?
BENNETT: We actually resisted that they have a drug czar because we thought it ought to be run out of the president and vice president's office, but once we got it, I think we ran with it pretty effectively. Not long ago I had a chance to go back to my old committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee -- it's sometimes called the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill committee, Sen. Biden and others -- and they were very nice to me. They said that they disagreed with us at the time but that we did a good job. I think we did.
LAMB: What role does the media play in the society and leadership?
BENNETT: Enormous. Enormous role. It has become for many children the major teacher of the young. If parents aren't doing their jobs and schools aren't doing their job or they are relatively absent, then kids will learn what they watch on TV and in the movies. There is a lot there that they shouldn't see, a lot of things being taught on TV that shouldn't be learned by the young. The media has a very powerful impact on the national debate, the political debate. I don't complain about the media as a conservative. I actually feel I've been treated fairly well. If they quote you correctly, that's all I care about. If they didn't take a shot at you, a slam at you, that's all right. Conservatives complain too much about the media. Yes, most people in Washington, in the TV and major newspapers are liberal. That's a fact of life, fine. But there are an awful lot of conservative people in the media on the commentary pages. They are the George Wills and the Bill Safires, the Charles Krauthammers, and there is Rush Limbaugh. So we get our say ...
LAMB: Why are we, in your opinion, in cultural decline as a country?
BENNETT: Because we have Walker Percy, the great novelist, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian émigré to the United States, agree, I think they are two of the smartest people in the last 50 or 100 years, say that the problem is weariness and cynicism, materialism. We've lost our sense of priorities. Solzhenitsyn says the spiritual axis of life has grown dim.
LAMB: What has caused that, though?
BENNETT: Probably success. Prosperity. We're probably looking in some part of the consequences of our own success. I think also that we have been beating on ourselves pretty hard since the late '60s about this country and what's wrong with our values. The traditional understandings and traditional principles and values of American life have taken a terrible beating for 25 or 30 years.
In the late '60s, early '70s people said, "Let's just throw them away. Let's just toss them; let's just dispense with them." We had values clarification in the schools which was everybody should do their own thing. I'm not sure there has been a worse doctrine for American children than the idea that everybody should do his own thing. That is the opposite of virtue. That is the opposite of any kind of morality. I think it's had a terrible, terrible effect on our society. We now are no longer sure about what people used to be sure of all the time -- our responsibility for each other, our responsibility for our own behavior.
Somebody says now, "I'm not responsible for my behavior because I was in a riot," and that's an excuse. This is a really extraordinary thing. It used to be if you did something in a riot, it made it even worse because a riot was even more dangerous. The idea that individuals are responsible for their actions is at the heart of our society, of our political tradition. We have to believe that people are if we are to carry on this tradition and this country and this experiment in self-government. If virtue is anything, it's self-government.
LAMB: Go back to when we were talking about the possibility of your running for president. I know it's real early in the game, but let me just throw all of this into the pot and get your opinion. You talked about your experience in government --education, drug czar, humanities. You were unable to drop those when you wanted to drop the humanities group. You talk about the cultural decline in the country. What's going on in your mind when you say, "Maybe I'd run for that office." What do you think you can do from that office?
BENNETT: I don't know. See, I don't think that's the key job now, not just a matter for me but for anybody. I think that we expect too much of the government, and we expect too much of the president. There was that moment in the presidential debate in Richmond last year when a man stood up and said, "We're your children; take care of our needs. What will you do to take care of our needs?"
Each of the three presidential candidates answered and said what he'd do to take care of that person's needs. That's wrong. You're supposed to take care of your own needs. We're asking the government to do too much. This is part of the attenuation or abrogation of personal responsibility to which we have to return. Sometimes in Washington you have to have the guts to stand up and say, "This is not a problem with a Washington solution." When this country has needed self-renewal, and we have shown the capacity for self-renewal in this country unlike any other country, that self-renewal comes from within. Regeneration comes from within. It's what individuals do and it's what families do and it's what goes on in schools and what goes on in communities.
We need an infusion of morale and optimism and, again, a sense of personal responsibility much more than we need some man on horseback in Washington. You can't solve the problems of men, the real problems of men, through politics. Samuel Johnson says, "How small of all that human hearts endure that part which laws or kings can cause or cure." But in the modern mind--it's close I think--we believe that if we have a problem we'll go to the laws and the kings and they'll solve it but as the great literature philosophy teaches us, the real struggle in life is in the heart of man. It is the struggle between good and evil: it's the struggle for the ordo amoris, the order of loves, as St. Augustine calls it, and that doesn't have a political solution. That's a solution that each man must find for himself. I think there's help to be found outside oneself, but that's the fundamental business, the real business of life.
LAMB: People that have read The Book of Virtues -- is there anything in here that they are surprised at?
BENNETT: Not yet.
LAMB: What is the most unusual thing, in your opinion, that you stuck in here?
BENNETT: I don't know. Some of the poetry, I think, would strike some people as a little odd and a little difficult. I don't know that we teach poetry anymore. Somebody asked me about the Housman poem, "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff": "Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think: / Look into the pewter pot / To see the world as the world is not." Someone said, "What's all that old poetry in there?" That old poetry is good. We need old poetry; we need old music. It contrasts well with some of the music of today.
LAMB: If everybody in the country read this book, what would be the impact?
BENNETT: If every adult read a lot of this to their children, if these stories were read by children and children knew that adults were taking it seriously, if they could read these stories and see that adults meant it, they weren't just talking a good game but wanted children to abide by what's in here, we'd be better off. You don't get better by reading. This won't make people better. They'll become more morally literate, but it will make them think about being better. I tend not to generalize about other people when I'm reading this; I tend to think about myself and the ways I need to improve my own act, but that's a good thing. If we then add to this the importance of habit and the importance of moral example, yes, we could get better, and that would be a very good thing, to get better.
LAMB: "A Treasury of Great Moral Stories;" this is "The Book of Virtues," and the editor and also commentator for this book, our guest, William J. Bennett. Thank you very much for joining us.
BENNETT: Thank you, Brian.
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