The Two William Bennetts

If you spend more than five minutes with William Bennett, he is likely to tell you about his trips across the country. In his first year as drug czar, Bennett visited thirty-five cities. In his speeches, interviews, and press conferences, Bennett keeps referring to the people he’s met on these trips—the block presidents in Albuquerque, tenant organizers in Dallas, church leaders in Chicago. In a speech at Harvard in mid-December on the legalization of drugs, Bennett summed up his impressions:

For the past three months, I have been traveling the country, visiting drug-ridden neighborhoods, seeing treatment and prevention programs in action, talking to teachers, cops, parents, kids. These, it seems, are the real drug experts—they’ve witnessed the problem first hand…. [And] they refuse to surrender. They are in the community, reclaiming their neighborhoods, working with police, setting up community activities, getting addicts into treatment, saving their children.

Wichita, Tulsa, and Ames, Iowa, all send the same message, Bennett said: “Law enforcement does work.” America needs “a bigger criminal justice system.”

Bennett regularly draws on his travels to support his case for more police, more prisons, and more prosecutors. His technique is dramatic and has got him a great deal of attention. Unfortunately, Bennett is not hearing what many of these drug experts are really saying.

On a raw December morning William Bennett, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, arrived in Boston aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Washington. He was accompanied by an advance man, a personal assistant, and a set of bodyguards supplied by the US Marshals Service. A National Guard helicopter picked them up, then flew them over the rush-hour traffic to the Joseph E. Lee School in Dorchester, a run-down, low-income section of Boston. Bennett was led upstairs to Marjorie Eure’s fourth grade class. Also present were Governor Michael Dukakis, Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, and about forty journalists, including several well-coiffed local TV reporters and a rumpled Robert Novak.

The four politicians took seats among the youngsters at low wooden tables and watched two skits by a trio of teenagers showing the kids how to “say no.” Then Bennett stood up in front of the class. A heavyset man with broad shoulders and a take-charge manner, Bennett tried at once to put the children at ease. “We’re all trying to figure out the best way to keep kids from taking drugs,” he explained. “Suppose you were the drug czar”—he paused to make sure the children knew who the drug czar was—“if you were the drug czar, what would you do?”

The students were shy at first, but, prodded by Bennett, they offered some ideas. “Put ‘em in jail for the rest of their life!” declared a nine-year-old. “Make the penalty for selling drugs twenty years,” said another. Others suggested hanging and the electric chair. Bennett, who has himself endorsed the idea of beheading drug dealers, smiled. “A pretty hard-nosed bunch here,” he commented …

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