William Bennett
William Bennett; drawing by David Levine

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. The exchange went on for another twenty minutes or so in the same discursive vein. The nation’s drug czar, a governor, two senators, and several dozen reporters all strained to hear what a group of fresh-faced nine-year-olds had to say about national drug policy.

Bennett’s next appointment was with Women Inc., a Dorchester treatment center a few miles away. We all drove there in a six-car motorcade, with police cars and flashing lights. We were deposited on a bleak, empty street in front of a peeling clapboard building. Inside, twenty-five women sat quietly in a small, brightly lit room that served as the center’s library. Candice Cason, the executive director, explained that Women Inc. specialized in treating mothers who, because of their drug habits, had had to give up their children. By offering counsel and discipline, she said, the center was helping them get their children back.

What, Bennett wanted to know, were the rules at Women Inc.? With knowing laughs, the women began listing the center’s many proscribed activities: no drugs, no sex, no violence. “Can you smoke?” Bennett asked. “Do you pray? Do you study?” Pressed for details, the women described their daily routine—taking showers in the morning, cooking breakfast, cleaning the center.

As they talked, though, the women—about half of whom were black and half white—began touching on some of their deeper concerns. Several had become shoplifters or burglars to support their habit; others had turned to prostitution. More than a few had been in prison. Now they were putting their lives back together and were eager to tell how they had gone off drugs.

“I have five children,” said a tall black woman with short curly hair. “When I came to Women Inc., I didn’t have any of them. I didn’t know how to be a mother. The only thing I knew was how to do drugs.” She had come to Women Inc. after serving an eight-month prison term and had successfully completed its program. She was now working with an AIDS-outreach center and, more importantly, had gotten all of her children back. The center, she said, “taught me to know who I was, and only then I could be there for my children.” She was about to complete her fifth year clean.


Bennett asked if she had used drugs while she was carrying her children. “Yes, all five of them,” she said, her voice trembling. “Thank God nothing happened.” She went on: “Drugs are an addiction. I knew every time I picked up that drug that I was taking a risk of harming my baby. But the need for that drug was so great.” Gaining confidence as she spoke, the woman said it was wrong to look on pregnant women who use drugs as criminals. “They have an addiction, and that needs to be addressed first and utmost,” she said. There was loud applause.

Picking up the theme, a large white woman introduced her teen-age daughter sitting next to her. In prison, the woman said, she had been unable to get help. After her release, she heard about Women Inc. and signed up. Through treatment she had learned that her addiction was actually a “disease”; understanding that had enabled her to accept responsibility for her behavior and become a “good mother.” What worried her, she went on, was that treatment was getting harder and harder to find. “Detox centers are closing left and right,” she complained.

There was a murmur of agreement. “What funding is going to be available for more beds and treatment?” asked one woman above the hubbub. “Building more jail cells doesn’t help women.” More applause.

Bennett looked unhappy. “If we turn this into a political rally, I’m going to walk out of here,” he said in a tight, low voice. “I want to ask questions and get your answers. If you have questions at the end, I’ll be very happy to answer them.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. “Mr. Secretary,” boomed William Owens, a black Massachusetts state senator who was standing in back. “If people are asking you about funding, that’s not a political rally. Please don’t insult the integrity of folks in here. More money for beds and treatment—that’s all they asked you about.”

Bennett was unmoved. “There’ll be more money,” he said. “But the reason we’re here is to find out what works—why this program is good.”

But the women would not be deterred. They had the chance to talk with the nation’s top drug official and wanted to tell him about the things that had driven them to drugs—child abuse, broken families, lack of opportunity—and how they had overcome them. At one point a black woman in the front row, her voice tinged with challenge, asked: “Do you believe that people addicted to drugs or alcohol are bad?”

Bennett hesitated for a moment, then replied that while some addicts might be unable to control themselves, others do drugs “because they don’t exercise responsibility” and “care more about themselves than their kids and other people.”

“It’s not true!” one woman cried.

“You’ve got to accept responsibility,” Bennett insisted. The tension in the room was palpable.

Senator Kerry, apparently sensing Bennett’s discomfort, tried to change the subject. “Those of you who are back out on the street,” he said, “what are you hearing about the drug war?”

There were guffaws. “There’s no drug war,” scoffed the woman with five children.

“You don’t see any effect?” asked Kerry.

“There’s only violence, gang violence, that’s the major problem here. That’s what you need to be dealing with, these young kids going into these gangs, wanting to be accepted. You need to be targeting these young adults. It’s not drugs, it’s gangs. You got to create jobs for them.”

From the back, Senator Owens began to speak about the importance of keeping adolescents out of gangs, but Senator Kennedy cut him short. “Dr. Bennett’s going to have to move on,” the senator mumbled. And so the meeting came to an end, barely forty minutes after it had begun. The four dignitaries ambled out of the room and reassembled on the driveway outside, in front of several TV cameras. At one point, Bennett was asked what he had learned from his visit to Women Inc. He said:

I was struck by people talking about their day here—about getting up in the morning, coming downstairs, and cooking breakfast. People are learning about good habits. They’re learning about punctuality, they’re learning about neatness, they’re learning about personal responsibility. That’s a very old lesson, but somehow along the way we forgot it. Isn’t it interesting that the way out of drug addiction is to relearn this lesson about personal responsibility?

That afternoon, Bennett traveled to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to give a speech on the legalization of drugs. It was thick with populist sentiments. “Americans—many of them poor, black or Hispanic—have figured out what the armchair critics haven’t,” Bennett said. Just that morning in Dorchester, he noted, he had found “more evidence” that law enforcement works.


Bennett’s day ended at Locke-Ober’s, a well-known Boston restaurant, where he had dinner with Robert Novak. He was up early the next morning to appear on Good Morning America, then left for New Hampshire and another full day of meetings. The breakneck pace, the reporters, the cameras, the bodyguards, and the aides, all gave the trip the feel of a presidential campaign.

I wondered what the people who had met with Bennett thought about his visit. I called Candice Cason at Women Inc. “We were glad that he actually got out of his office to hear directly from people,” Cason said softly. “Everybody gave him high marks for that.” Otherwise, Bennett’s grades were rather low. “Bennett’s reaction was that of someone who doesn’t know a lot about this work,” she said. “He seemed to cling to his opinions about what addicts are. When he was asked if he thought people who used drugs were bad, he hemmed and hawed and said that many drug users are concerned only about themselves. We were appalled by that. If only he had a sense of why people use drugs and alcohol.”

Cason said she hoped to double Women Inc.’s capacity for treating pregnant women but was having trouble coming up with the money. “The message the women here wanted to get across was the need for more funding for treatment,” she told me. “We wanted to say that there is rehabilitation, and jail isn’t where it happens.”

Cason was most critical of Bennett’s remarks to the press: “He talked about a restoration of morals, about helping people get new values. I agreed with him. But afterward I began wondering whether his idea of morals is different from mine and that of the other people here. Most of us would think it’s not moral to allow people to be homeless and to neglect people’s education needs. When he talks about the restoration of people’s morals, I’m not sure he’s in the same ballpark as us.”


In appearance, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is anything but czarlike. It occupies two floors of a beat-up office building in northwest Washington, more than a mile from the White House. There’s a fast-food restaurant on the ground floor and a beauty parlor in the basement. (For security reasons, journalists are discouraged from being more specific.) Despite the office’s daunting mandate—dealing with what all the polls now call the nation’s number one social problem—the staff has 106 people, and that figure includes clerical help.

William Bennett does not attend cabinet meetings. Unlike cabinet officials, the drug czar has no programs of his own to administer; he simply coordinates those of other federal agencies. What’s more, Bennett has no money to dispense. At budget time, his office drafts an overall spending plan for the government, then tries to sell it to the White House. In that endeavor, Bennett must contend with the budget director, Richard Darman, keeper of the President’s no-tax pledge. According to Newsweek, during one recent confrontation in John Sununu’s office, the two men hurled obscenities at each other.

William Bennett’s office is large, airy, neat. On the wall is a map studded with brightly colored pins, each indicating a city he’s visited as drug czar. Bennett, his suit jacket off and shirtsleeves rolled up, motioned to the map as he discussed the role of local organizations in the drug war. “Particularly in those areas where the drug problem is having its most devastating impact,” he said, “[community] is an important part of the necessary response.”

As examples he cited Tulsa, Dallas—and Women Inc. in Dorchester. “I don’t know if you took a look at the rules at that place—they’re very tough,” he said. “There was a clear sense of community, of solidarity, of camaraderie in that place. They all help each other when they go out…. They’re in the process of constituting a community of shared values, and these values are: no alcohol, no drugs, standing up for each other when some male marauder might show up.”

I asked Bennett about the friction that had developed at the meeting. In what way had the women’s comments about treatment constituted a “political rally”? “I could tell from the questions,” he replied, “[that] somebody had said to them, ‘you’ve got to tell this guy…that the federal government has to provide more money for treatment.’ ” The point was moot, Bennett said—the government is providing more money for treatment. Then, his tone hardening, he said, “Look, I’ve been in politics for eight years. I have seen lots of occasions when the federal official comes and the group gets ready, or someone gets the group ready, and says, ‘Let’s yell at this guy.’…I’m not very good at sitting there, being yelled at for twenty minutes, because A, I don’t have a guilty conscience, and B, I want to hear about how the center works. I thought it was beginning to get into one of those—what did Tom Wolfe call it?”

“—Mau-mauing the flak catchers,” put in an aide who was sitting in on the interview. The reference was to Wolfe’s 1970 essay about poor urban blacks who barge into the offices of City Hall bureaucrats (the flak catchers), using a variety of menacing tactics to intimidate (mau-mau) them into giving poverty grants. “Certified angry militants,” Wolfe wrote of the mau-mauers, “your guaranteed frustrated ghetto youth, looking like a bunch of wild men,” shaking up the bureaucrats “so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic….”

It was a nasty allusion—especially in view of Bennett’s public praise for Women Inc. The drug czar’s repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for the grass roots, it seems, is tempered by considerable suspicion. On the one hand, community organizers are esteemed as folk heroes on the front lines, valiant warriors who refuse to surrender. On the other, they are liable to be described as poverty professionals seeking government handouts. How are these differing visions to be explained?

There sometimes seem to be two William Bennetts. The first William Bennett is accessible, generous, and wise, an elder statesman seeking to mobilize the nation’s energies against the drug menace. This Bennett values good relations with Congress and goes uncomplainingly to Capitol Hill to testify before dozens of subcommittees. Intent on soliciting a wide variety of viewpoints, this Bennett has put together a “kitchen cabinet” of advisers that includes businessmen, community leaders, and treatment experts—some of them Democrats. “I got a call from him within twenty-four hours of his being nominated,” says Lee Dogoloff, who served as White House drug adviser under Jimmy Carter. “He reached out early on to people who he felt were knowledgeable.”

The other William Bennett, however, is less patient and magnanimous, more partisan and intolerant. The drug czar’s visits to Congress, while frequent, often degenerate into shouting matches. Bennett, says Ed Jurith, the staff director of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse, has engaged in “an unnecessary amount of Congress-bashing. The guy just can’t help himself.” Another congressional staff member who deals frequently with the drug office (and who asks not to be named) angrily accuses Bennett and his staff of “wanting to limit the terms of the debate. To them, any criticism from Democrats—or any criticism generally—smacks of being un-American. It is a Nixonian mentality: If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”

Sometimes both Bennetts are present at once, battling furiously for advantage. During the recent flurry of debate over legalizing drugs, Bennett at times came across as measured and thoughtful, attempting, through analysis, to demonstrate the flaws in the arguments for legalizing drugs. But the other Bennett kept butting in, taking gratuitous swipes at his opponents. “Morally scandalous,” he called them at Harvard. “Irresponsible nonsense,” he huffed on This Week with David Brinkley. On CNN’s Evans and Novak Bennett called Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen a “little twerp” for daring to raise the issue.

Dr. Arnold Washton, an expert on drug treatment, appeared with Bennett on the Brinkley program. Like the drug czar, he spoke against legalization, but he was appalled by Bennett’s performance. “Bennett could make counterarguments in a persuasive way,” says Washton. “But his approach is to put down proponents, to turn the issue into a moralistic type of thing.” He adds: “The people who favor legalization are well-intentioned, respected people. By raising the legalization argument, they are actually doing us a favor, forcing us to clarify our thinking. To say ‘shame on you’ is not a credit to Mr. Bennett.”

In interviews and briefings William Bennett is fond of quoting the views of leading drug experts to buttress his own opinions; often, though, the citations are highly selective. At a press conference in January, for instance, Bennett asserted that we had turned the corner in the drug war and, as evidence, cited the growing role of the military and the “hardening” of public attitudes. “You talk to somebody [like] David Musto, professor at Yale, who I think is America’s most distinguished scholar, historian of this issue, and he’ll tell you these are all very, very positive signs,” Bennett said.

Musto is a professor of psychiatry at Yale and the author of The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, and Bennett cites him repeatedly in his public remarks. Musto told me that he is encouraged by the growing public disdain for drugs. At the same time, he warned about the “danger of zealousness” in confronting the drug issue and of “relying primarily on law enforcement” to solve it. Musto worries that Americans, consumed by a desire for “revenge and punishment,” will “refuse to invest” in schools, jobs, community development, and other pressing needs of the inner city. Yet it is only by addressing those needs, says Musto, that any drug-control strategy can hope to succeed. For the Bush administration, though, such concerns are almost always overshadowed by the emphasis on law enforcement, he complains.

“There’s a hazard whenever the drug problem is linked to political ambitions,” Musto says, referring to past and present drug czars; when drugs become a “stepping stone” to higher office, he says, there’s “enormous pressure to misdescribe the situation.”

When President Bush named William Bennett to be his drug czar, many found it a strange choice. Bennett, by his own admission, knew next to nothing about drugs. Education had been his lifelong concern. His early career had been spent on campuses—the University of Texas (Ph.D. in philosophy), the University of Southern Mississippi (assistant professor), Harvard Law School (J.D.), Boston University (assistant to the president), and the National Humanities Center in North Carolina (director). In 1982, Bennett went to Washington to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, where, for four years, he administered grants to other academics. Among the most controversial was a $30,000 “emergency” grant to Accuracy in Media to produce a rightwing alternative to Stanley Karnow’s PBS series on the Vietnam War.

Bennett became secretary of education in 1985. In that job, he had to contend with the issue of drug use in public schools. Under his direction, the department produced Schools Without Drugs, a how-to guide for principals, teachers, and parents on preventing drug use in the public schools. It was very popular, and more than two million copies were distributed. Aside from such promotional efforts, though, Bennett did not acquire much experience with the drug problem.

He did, however, establish himself as a leading neoconservative. As secretary of education, Bennett promoted prayer in schools and supported tuition tax credits for parents sending their children to private schools. He criticized Harvard for failing to provide its students with a “moral education” and attacked college students for using federal loan money to buy stereo sets. A champion of discipline in schools, Bennett made a folk hero of Joe Clark, the New Jersey high school principal who prowled his school’s hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat.

Scornful of the education “establishment,” Bennett ran his department through a small circle of brash, young aides who thrived on confrontation. Intent on reaching beyond the bureaucracy to the broader public, Bennett and his team developed the idea of high-profile trips around the country. From the South Bronx to Osburn, Idaho, Bennett dropped in on schoolrooms, awarding certificates of merit, issuing reading lists, teaching the Federalist Papers. The press was often invited along, and Bennett seemed always in the news—chalk in hand, preaching to anyone who would listen the need to improve America’s schools. All the while, though, Bennett was fervently supporting administration efforts to cut federal spending on education. It was an odd package, summed up by Arizona’s former governor Bruce Babbitt, who, in a review in the Washington Monthly of a collection of Bennett’s speeches, wrote:

One must admire Bill Bennett for his use of the bully pulpit, his willingness to smash those icons, and his relentless crusades for values and quality…. But beyond this, there simply isn’t any program, just a lot of sizzle and not much steak. Bennett’s only specific suggestions for a federal leadership role are proposals for school prayer and tuition tax credits.

Many conservatives, however, were impressed by Bennett’s performance and urged him to run for president. Bennett considered the idea but in the end decided to back Bush.

He was rewarded with the drug job. On taking it, Bennett faced a choice. He could remain the ideological provocateur he had been as secretary of education, pressing narrow neoconservative goals. Or he could put aside his politics and ambitions and become a national healer, much as C. Everett Koop had been as surgeon general. Koop, a devout Baptist, came to that post with the reputation of a political reactionary whose views on sexual practices were thought to diverge little from those of evangelical preachers. Once in office, though, Koop, searching for responses to AIDS and other crises, displayed fewer and fewer of the narrowly conceived views that had been ascribed to him. By the time he left office, Koop was widely respected for his independence and fairmindedness.

Bennett, forced to choose between Bill the tough guy and William the wise man, has retained elements of both. Consider his staff. It is a curious hybrid, roughly divided between the drug office’s two floors. Concentrated on the lower floor are staff members with extensive experience in the drug field. Here, for instance, is the office of Dr. Herbert Kleber, Bennett’s deputy director for demand reduction. A professor of psychiatry at Yale, Kleber has spent the last twenty-five years researching and treating drug addiction, and he has earned widespread respect. Down the hall is Reggie Walton, the associate director for state and local affairs. From 1981 to 1989, Walton served as a judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court—a fine place for learning about drugs.

This is the “issues” floor. Bennett does not spend much time here. His office is upstairs, on the “political” floor, where speeches are drafted, strategies devised, trips planned. Most of the people on Bennett’s own staff were hired less for their knowledge of drugs than for their personal or political ties to Bennett. The same inner circle that ran the Department of Education has been reassembled here, faithfully applying themselves, as before, to promoting their boss’s views. Generally speaking, the people immediately surrounding Bennett are highly ideological and committed, and fiercely loyal to William Bennett.

As it happens, they are mostly white. Of the approximately sixty-five professionals on Bennett’s staff, six are black; three of them, including Reggie Walton, work in the Office of State and Local Affairs. Upstairs, where the real authority is, there is not a single black professional. At first, this might not seem unusual; after all, minorities are underrepresented throughout the federal bureaucracy, and in principle it is not race but competence that should count in hiring staff. But the drug office would seem a special case. Although crack has reached the suburbs and infiltrated the middle class, it has hit the black community hardest. The National Drug Control Strategy, commonly known as the Bennett Plan, acknowledges this:

Our most intense and immediate problem is inner-city crack use. It is an acid that is fast corroding the hopes and possibilities of an entire generation of disadvantaged young people. They need help. Their neighborhoods need help. A decent and responsible America must fully mobilize to provide it.

The key test facing any drug czar, then, is grasping the causes and complexities of drug use in the inner city and figuring out what to do about it. The effectiveness of William Bennett’s approach is suggested by his performance at Women Inc. Given the opportunity to listen to a roomful of inner-city mothers who had experienced the drug crisis first-hand, Bennett tuned out. To judge by his own statements, he took away only whatever fit his own ideas about responsibility and law enforcement. All the rest was so much mau-mauing.


William Bennett’s approach to the drug problem is summed up in the revised strategy that his office released in late January. For 1991, it proposes spending a total of $10.6 billion on drug control. That’s $1.1 billion more than was allocated this year and $4.3 billion more than had been spent in the year before President Bush took office. Clearly, the current administration is more willing to shell out for the drug war than its predecessor. As for how the money is to be divided, though, there’s more continuity than change. Under Bush, as under Reagan, the largest share of resources is earmarked for law enforcement and interdiction. In 1991, these two categories will absorb fully 70 percent of all expenditures. Bennett’s plan calls for 102 new FBI agents, 377 new Drug Enforcement Administration agents, 765 drug task force agents, 410 prosecutors, 2,817 prison guards, and 6,000 prison beds. One of the principal beneficiaries will be the Pentagon, which in 1991 is to receive $1.2 billion to fight drugs—more than double what it was getting a year ago.

The remaining 30 percent of the budget is to go for treatment, prevention, and education. In 1991, the administration proposes spending $1.5 billion on drug treatment. This will create enough treatment slots to help between 960,000 and 1.7 million people a year; the actual number will depend on the levels of state and local funding. To Bennett’s credit, this represents a major change from the Reagan years, when treatment facilities were put on an eight-year starvation diet.

Yet the demand for treatment is so great that, even with this increase, many hundreds of thousands of drug abusers who want treatment will be unable to find it. This is particularly true for cocaine addicts. Most current treatment slots are located in methadone clinics in order to serve heroin addicts. Few centers are equipped to provide the intensive counseling that cocaine and crack abusers require. This severe shortage of slots for cocaine addicts has led many public officials to embrace the principle of “treatment on demand”—guaranteeing treatment for every addict who seeks it. Senator Joseph Biden, in an alternative strategy to Bush’s plan, calls for achieving such a system by 1993 and would spend $3.8 billion during the coming fiscal year to help bring it about. If crack use continues to spread, public support for treatment on demand will undoubtedly grow.

Not at the national drug office, however. William Bennett adamantly opposes the idea. Treatment on demand, he told me, implies that people can “demand the kind of treatment they want, the terms and conditions under which they’ll get it. That’s a mistake.” He explained:

Many people on drugs will demand treatment after a bad day, or a bad night, or a crash. After a couple of days, and after seeing the kinds of demands [that treatment] makes on them…they’ll say, “This isn’t for me.”

Recalling a trip to New York, Bennett says he visited two treatment programs—“very effective and very demanding”—that had many vacancies, while another program that “hands out methadone and makes no demands has a long waiting list.”

The Bennett Plan offers many reasons for proceeding cautiously in expanding treatment facilities. We lack a clear sense of which treatment programs work, the document says. We have inadequate information on who enrolls in these programs. Building new treatment facilities is difficult due to community resistance. Most cities lack referral services, so that centers that have waiting lists cannot direct patients to centers with vacancies. And so on.

Inefficient uses of drug treatment facilities no doubt exist. But are they the main problem? In New York state, officials estimate they need five times the 50,000 treatment slots currently available. To cite just one example, the Addicts Rehabilitation Center in Harlem has a waiting list of more than 500 people; on many afternoons the lobby is filled with sweating, jittery addicts waiting—sometimes for days—for a space to come free. Scenes like this are common in large cities throughout the country. Every day, it seems, the newspapers feature another inner-city horror story—of desperate mothers being turned away from clinics, of judges unable to place juvenile offenders in treatment programs, of murders committed by people who want treatment but are unable to find it.

Despite this dire situation, William Bennett tends to dwell on the obstacles in the way of expanding treatment, rather than on how to overcome them. At times, the drug czar seems uneasy with the notion of treatment itself. That was certainly the impression he conveyed last May is a speech to a Washington, DC, synagogue. “Two words sum up my entire approach: consequence and confrontation,” Bennett said. “Those who use, sell, and traffic in drugs must be confronted, and they must suffer consequences.” As examples of consequences he mentioned stiffer prison sentences, the revocation of bail rights, and the death penalty for drug “kingpins.” He went on:

We must build more prisons. There must be more jails. We must have more judges to hear drug cases and more prosecutors to bring them to trial, including military judges and prosecutors to supplement what we already have. And there must be more federal agents to investigate and solve drug crimes and break drug networks.

Here, as elsewhere, Bennett never questions the efficacy of the criminal justice system. That system, like treatment programs, suffers from serious inefficiencies. Across the country, police chiefs, judges, and prosecutors are throwing up their hands, frustrated by their inability to contain, much less defeat, the drug trade. Such problems, however, never seem to find their way into Bennett’s speeches. There, police and prisons are described in only the most glowing terms. The contrast with his pronouncements on treatment could not be starker.

Evaluating Bennett’s approach requires one of those “real drug experts” he mentioned in his Harvard speech, community leaders fighting the drug war in the trenches. Few seem better qualified than Alvin Brooks. A fifty-seven-year-old former policeman, Brooks is the founder and executive director of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime in Kansas City, Missouri. Last August Brooks spent three hours showing William Bennett his group’s activities. The drug czar was impressed, and the Bennett Plan singled out the Ad Hoc Group as “a vivid example of how a well-coordinated community can take on the threat posed by neighborhood drug activity.” Brooks sits on Bennett’s “kitchen cabinet” and, in December, was featured in Fighting Back: Profiles of Citizen and Community Efforts That Are Helping America Win the War on Drugs, a windy report published by the drug office which some staff members refer to as Bill Bennett’s “Top 20” list of community leaders. In January, in the ultimate tribute, President Bush himself paid a visit to Kansas City to see the Ad Hoc Group in action.

In an interview Brooks does not hide his pride at his group’s accomplishments. He eagerly describes its drug hot lines, its rallies in shopping centers, its drug-free zones around Kansas City schools. An auxiliary group, Black Men Together, has organized marches in crack-infested neighborhoods, using bullhorns to direct angry chants at dealers. Such tactics have succeeded in shutting down more than one hundred drug houses over the past year, Brooks says.

But he is far from satisfied. Drugs, he notes, are still freely available in his neighborhood located in one of Kansas City’s poor districts. Drug gangs continue to flourish, and shootouts remain a favorite means of settling disputes. On top of it all, treatment facilities are entirely inadequate. “We have to begin to make sure that a disproportionate amount of money isn’t spent on the criminal justice system,” Brooks says. “I don’t care what you do in terms of hiring police officers and prosecutors or building new prisons. We simply can’t do it fast enough.”

Brooks would like to see a “tenfold increase” in spending on treatment. By treatment he means more than providing a bed in a clinic. “If people go back on the street and get a whiff of crack, without proper aftercare, they’ll be right back where they started,” he says. “That’s why our success rates in treatment have been so low.” Unless more is done to help recovering addicts find jobs and housing, he says, consumption levels will remain high.

The Ad Hoc Group is facing obstacles of its own. For months Brooks has been looking for a building with a swimming pool and indoor track that he could convert into a neighborhood recreation center. “Our kids have nowhere to go to swim, to sing, to dance,” he says. “They have to go ten to fifteen miles away to be entertained. With nothing to do, they’re very vulnerable.” For inner-city children to remain free of drugs, Brooks says, “they have to have the same options as their white suburban counterparts.” Accomplishing that, of course, requires money. “Whatever we do, we do on a shoestring,” Brooks says. The Ad Hoc Group has plenty of volunteers, but “volunteers can do only so much.”

Community action is “the new wave” in the drug war, Brooks says. “More money must be made available to the groups that are involved in this whole effort.”

The Bennett Plan itself extols community action, looking to it to tip the balance in the street war with the drug dealers. “Whatever gains are made by law enforcement in diminishing local drug problems,” the report asserts, “a permanent solution requires the persistent involvement of an entire community.” The language is lofty, but when it comes to actual funding Bennett turns out to be grudging. For 1991, his office proposes spending $102 million on community programs and $150 million on public housing projects. That’s double the amount allocated for 1990 but still a pittance when measured against the need.

“The money is not getting to these community groups,” says Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which represents 1,500 community organizations across the country. Neighborhood groups, Woodson says, “are coming up with the most dynamic and innovative ways to deal with the drug problem,” but unless they get the necessary backing, he says, their potential will go unrealized.

That, sadly, seems inevitable, given the current political climate. The Ad Hoc Group Against Crime and other groups like it qualify as one of President Bush’s “thousand points of light,” energetic bands of citizens whose efforts are to be cheered and saluted—as long as they don’t ask for money from Washington.

“Everybody talks about money, money, money,” says Reggie Walton, Bennett’s associate director for state and local affairs. “Sure, money is important, but you also have to appreciate the fact that there’s been a deterioration of the morals and values of America. Because, unfortunately, we’ve always had inner-city ghettos—always had certain classes of people who live in poverty. And I guarantee you that if you go to poor communities today and compare them to poor communities in the Forties and Fifties, people will tell you that it was a lot better then than it is now, even though the poverty was as bad, if not worse.”

Walton grew up poor in Donora, Pennsylvania, a steel town south of Pittsburgh. Through hard work, he made it out of the ghetto, attending American University Law School, serving as a prosecutor in the District of Columbia, and, in 1981, becoming a Superior Court judge. As a judge Walton was known for handing out stiff sentences to young offenders and lecturing to them about the importance of personal responsibility. Today, at the age of forty-one, Walton is the top-ranking black in the Office of National Drug Control Policy. And he emphatically rejects the notion that poverty makes people more likely to turn to drugs.

“I can go out here and look at kids, and they’re not walking around with the type of shoes I had to wear when I was going to school, with holes in them and cardboard [stuck] in them to keep the water off my feet,” Walton says. “I grew up in an environment where my father was out of work for two years. There were times when there just wasn’t any money at home, and if I had brought blood money into the house because I was selling drugs, my parents would not have accepted it. Now you’re talking about a changed value system where people say we’ll accept it because we need the money.

“Contrary to what people think, most kids and most people who live in innercity communities are good people who don’t do drugs or sell them. I think that a kid who is poor but has good parents has no greater possibility of getting into trouble than anybody else.”

Walton speaks with the fierce pride of a self-made man, and it’s hard not to admire it. It’s also hard to challenge his view that the decline in family values in America has contributed to drug abuse; Jesse Jackson, for one, makes the same point. Still, Walton’s insistence that growing up in the inner city does not make a child more vulnerable to drugs seems odd. Perhaps it’s true that today’s kids don’t have to put cardboard in their shoes, but they do face worse horrors, from AIDS and homelessness to gangs and assault rifles. And, while most inner-city kids don’t do drugs, and many suburban kids do, it is undeniable that a child in Harlem will be more likely to use drugs than a child in Scarsdale—no matter how loving the parents.

During my conversation with Walton, I asked if he had come across any success stories in the war on drugs. He mentioned the Reverend Lee Earl, a Detroit church pastor who had mobilized his community against drugs. I called Reverend Earl at his office in the 12th Street Baptist Church. His community had indeed had success, Earl told me. A few years ago, the drug violence on the street had become so bad that people were afraid to attend church. Appalled, Earl formed a community group, called REACH. Members identified crack houses and called in the police to evict the tenants. They then renovated the houses and leased them to neighborhood residents. To date, twenty houses have been redone. “Today, we don’t have drug dealing on the streets like we used to,” Earl said. “There’s less violence, and people can go to church without fear.”

But, he hastened to add, the drug dealers had not gone away. Forced off the street, they simply went indoors. “It’s still going on all around us,” Earl observed. REACH’s activities, while effective, had dealt “only with the symptoms” of the disease, not its causes. “These people fighting drugs need support,” Earl said. “They need child care. They need educational programs, jobs, and subsidized housing.” Lacking the basic necessities of living, people in the neighborhood—including members of his own group—were being sucked into the trade.

Earl wants to expand REACH. The organization’s current budget comes to $600,000 a year, but Earl would like somewhat more so that he could hire a full-time athletic director and add thirty children to his day-care program. “For $35,000, we could get these kids at an early age and teach them good values,” he said. “Or we can send one kid to a penitentiary for $35,000 a year. I’m not saying that building prisons isn’t part of the solution. I’m saying it’s only part of the solution.” The Bush administration, he complained, “thinks it’s simply a case of violence—buy more guns, hire more police. That’s obtuse.”

In September, Reggie Walton came to Detroit to see REACH in action. Earl showed the judge a newly erected basketball court and expressed his desire to establish a neighborhood athletic program. Nothing came of the visit. “When Senator Don Riegle came, he gave $1,000 of his own money and got the Detroit Pistons to give $7,500 more,” Reverend Earl recalls. “Judge Walton came—and we haven’t gotten anything from him.” He adds with irritation: “I have Judge Walton’s phone number. I can call him and ask for aid. But when I do, I just get bounced around. And he’s black. He grew up in a poor neighborhood twenty-five years ago, like I did.”

“We’re spending $9 billion a year on drugs—and we don’t see one penny,” Earl said. The people in Washington “need to start learning to listen to the people at the grass roots who really know how to fight this war.”

Lee Earl in Detroit, Alvin Brooks in Kansas City, Candice Cason in Dorchester, and countless other front-line combatants across the country all feel strongly that we have our priorities backward. Rather than expand our police forces and erect new prisons, they say, we should be investing in treatment centers, day-care programs, athletic facilities, and other projects that can strengthen our inner cities and make them more resistant to the drug scourge.

Certainly legalizing drugs would not help on this score. In fact, making drugs freely available without first improving living conditions in depressed urban neighborhoods could have disastrous consequences. “Legalizing drugs won’t improve housing or provide child care,” says Reverend Earl. Like law enforcement, he says, legalizing drugs would merely address the symptoms of the problem, leaving the underlying despair in these struggling communities untouched.

Communities: William Bennett needs no education on their importance. Tramping about Tampa and Omaha, Dallas and Des Moines, Bennett, cameras and all, has seen the difference that neighborhood programs can make in fighting drugs. The concept of community action is by far the most original and promising idea to have emerged from Bennett’s office during his first year as drug czar. Why, then, not follow through on it? If people like Earl, Brooks, and Cason are doing such commendable work, shouldn’t they get the resources they need to back it up?

In 1991, the Bush administration will spend more than $3 billion on interdiction and international operations. The government is building a new National Drug Intelligence Center, hiring hundreds of new customs agents, creating a money-laundering analysis unit, and deploying Marine units on the Mexican border. If the past is any guide, none of this will make much difference. The Reagan administration made interdiction the central program of its war against drugs and spent more than $7 billion on it. Nonetheless, the amount of cocaine flowing into the country increased enormously during the 1980s. The price of a kilo, more than $60,000 at the start of the decade, dropped to less than $12,000 by its end.

Today US drug enforcement agents are making record drug seizures. During the last few months alone, they have seized twenty tons of cocaine in Los Angeles, nine tons in Texas, six tons aboard a Panamanian freighter, and five tons off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. None of this has had any long-term effect on prices, however, indicating just how vast are the quantities entering the country. With 88,000 miles of borders, the idea that we can somehow seal off the United States to drug smugglers seems like a fantasy. As long as Americans want drugs, traffickers will find the means to supply them.

The key, then, is reducing demand. And there seems no better way of accomplishing this than by assisting the inner-city communities that are the chief source of that demand. That assistance should not only provide more treatment but should also address the broader needs that community leaders believe must be met if the demand for drugs is to be reduced. This, remarkably, remains the most poorly financed part of our entire strategy. The Coast Guard is getting more boats, Customs is getting more planes, and Latin America is getting more arms, but REACH is having trouble adding thirty kids to its daycare rolls, and the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime cannot find the money to open an athletic center.

William Bennett has a choice. He can continue to offer such community groups lip service and little else. Or he can make good on his populist rhetoric and place Washington squarely behind these grass-roots organizations and their efforts to fight drugs. Which Bennett will turn out to be the real one?

February 1, 1990

This Issue

March 1, 1990