Former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett

The former education secretary and host of the syndicated radio show Morning in America shares his inspiration for writing the text The Book of Man and assesses the growth in education inequality and the “Race to the Top” program.

Through his public service, nationally broadcast radio show and best-selling books, Bill Bennett has become one of America's most respected voices on cultural, political and education issues. He served as President Reagan's National Endowment for the Humanities chair and education secretary and as the first President Bush's "drug czar." A well-known Republican, he's often crossed party lines to pursue important common purposes, including ending worldwide religious persecution. Bennett has written/edited 16 books and holds a J.D. from Harvard and a Ph.D. in political philosophy.


Tavis: Tonight, though, we are pleased to kick off this week with Bill Bennett, the prominent political and social commentator served as U.S. Secretary of Education, of course, under President Ronald Reagan, now the host of the nationally syndicated radio program “Morning in America.” Also a perennial “New York Times” best-selling author.

The most recent text is called “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.” Bill Bennett, sir, an honor to have you on this program.

Bill Bennett: Thank you very much. Speaking of books, may I? Congratulations on your book.

Tavis: I thank you.

Bennett: You and Dr. West, teacher of my sons at Princeton.

Tavis: Yes, he told me about that, as a matter of fact, yeah. Thank you.

Bennett: He used to see me on campus; he’d put his arm around me and say, “I’m going to wreck your career, hugging you so close.” (Laughter)

Tavis: It’s been funny, on this tour for our book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” we have run into more people, conservatives, in fact, who have been taught by West.

We were on Sean Hannity’s program the other night. His nephew is a student of Cornel West. George Wills’ child a student of Cornel West. It’s been funny to run into all these conservatives whose kids he’s teaching. He’s ruining a lot of people. (Laughs)

Bennett: Well, they’ve got a great program going and he works with Robby George. I don’t know if you know Robby.

Tavis: Yeah, I know Robby very – yeah, absolutely.

Bennett: The two of them teach a course together, and that is what you’d want in a college course. It’s kind of the yin and yang of political philosophy.

Tavis: Yeah, no, it’s been – I haven’t had a chance to sit in on that course, but it is one of the more popular courses on the campus, to have West and George in the same classroom. Unbelievable.

Bennett: When he saw me, though, when he met my son, he said, “Your father is conservatism’s Immanuel Kant.” My son ran back to the library to find out who Immanuel Kant is, because you’re supposed to know this if you’re in Princeton.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad to have you on.

Bennett: Thank you. Thank you.

Tavis: Since you mentioned our book about poverty, let me start there, if I can. I’ll come back to “The Book of Man” here. I love this book. We’ll get to that in a second. There’s so much to talk to you about tonight.

Since you mentioned poverty, today in “The New York Times” you made the front page, a story about Paul Ryan.

Bennett: Just saw that.

Tavis: You saw the story?

Bennett: Just.

Tavis: All right. So a front-page story in “The New York Times” today – we’ll put it on the screen in a second – front-page “New York Times” story about Paul Ryan, of course, Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee. On this book tour that Dr. West and I have been on, we were in Georgetown last week one night. Two nights later Paul Ryan showed up for this major policy speech about poverty and what his views were on it. He has been pushed back, as you know well, by the Catholic bishops.

He is, of course, a devout Catholic, and the Catholic bishops have pushed back on him for a budget that they think is not in line with the teachings of the Catholic tradition.

You’re in this article saying that you think Paul Ryan may be one of, if not the most important Republican voice in the country today, so let’s just talk about that first.

Number one, what do you make of the bishops pushing back on Mr. Ryan’s budget, saying it’s just not in keeping with looking out for the least among us?

Bennett: It’s not an ideological church. The Catholic Church was having an argument a month ago, Tavis, with the president about religious institutions, if you remember all that about providing contraception and so on.

Tavis: Contraception and all that, yeah.

Bennett: The bishops, we conservatives tend to be happy with the bishops when they’re talking about abortion. Sometimes we’re not happy with them when they talk about something else.

No, I think the view of most of the bishops is more government, more expansion of government, more programs for the poor – an understandable position. Ryan’s position, I think, is also understandable. We’re $16 trillion in deficit; we have spent a ton – more than a ton. We’re not getting great results.

If we want to save some of the best programs, we’re going to have to make adjustments. I think reasonable people can disagree on this. I don’t think it’s fair to call it a cruel or heartless approach.

Tavis: But this notion of austerity, which seems to be gaining ground amongst some, of course, in Washington, Mr. Ryan’s party last week of the House Agriculture Committee passed a bill tightening restrictions on food stamps when everybody knows food insecurity in this country is growing.

Newt Gingrich’s bad joke about Obama the food stamp president notwithstanding, this is a real issue. Americans are suffering. One out of two Americans is either in or near poverty, and tightening food stamps and other austerity measures that these Republicans are taking, again, are not that – I’m trying to juxtapose what Ryan says and what his party does.

Bennett: Well, I think – and I have to talk about the Ryan plan overall rather than this particular one in agriculture. Ryan says if you want to keep a federal role, a major federal role in addressing issues of poverty and people’s circumstances, you’re going to have to make adjustments.

The main adjustments he talks about, of course, are in the two big expenditures of government, the two biggest – Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security, where he talks about most of the things that have to be changed are the benefits for wealthy people.

People on Social Security like myself, people on Medicare like myself, are probably going to get less out of those programs. I think that’s right. One place – you and I will disagree on this, I know that – but one place you and I might disagree, maybe two, is that what’s happened now, as you’re seeing in a lot of transfers in the federal government from the young to the old, transfers to the relatively poor and sometimes absolutely young to the relatively affluent old, and transfers from those who are truly in need to those who have earned through an entitlement the expectation that they’re going to keep getting their government check.

That, I think Ryan’s proposals, Tavis, fro government shrinkage have been attacked by a lot of people as being insufficient to the task because they’re relatively small over time.

Now, what we’re looking for is an alternative from the administration. We don’t have one. But this is a fair debate to have. I believe his proposals are sensible and that they put us on a path to prosperity. Because if we don’t do something, we’re going to lose the whole game. We’re going to lose the whole budget, the whole government.

Tavis: You and I agree on that, I think, but we also agree, I think, and you wrote the book about morals.

Bennett: Yes, sir.

Tavis: I believe that budgets are moral documents.

Bennett: I agree.

Tavis: Budgets are moral documents, and every time we seem to have a budget it always seems, at least, to be balanced on the backs of poor people. So even if you agree with the cuts and the suggestions Mr. Ryan has made, why is it more broadly that that’s always done on the backs of poor people?

So that corporate welfare never gets addressed, we bail out Wall Street; they’re sitting on a trillion dollars now they won’t put back into the economy. You’ve had this debate a thousand times; I won’t waste your time going through this. The question is why always poor people making the sacrifice?

Bennett: Well, I don’t think poor people should always make the sacrifice, and I wasn’t for some of the things that you cite. I think they are obscene things done in this country in the name of encouraging the profit motive.

But I do have some experience with government programs, and I can tell you that always spending isn’t necessarily the right thing or the most helpful thing to do. I can tell you about the education programs, because that’s where I lived and worked.

We have spent probably $2 trillion in Title I, which is the biggest single federal education program, or was, and I don’t think the research suggests it’s done much good. I don’t think we’ve really done much good for those kids. I think we could have done it smarter and better.

I don’t mind paying the taxes I pay, which is pretty considerable. I’m in that, I guess, top 2 percent or something.

Tavis: You are the 1 percent. (Laughs)

Bennett: Maybe I am; maybe not quite the 1 percent. I don’t mind – the 1 percent pays, what, 40 percent of the tax. I don’t mind that if it were well-spent. My problem is that I’ve been in the government; I see how the money’s spent.

If you can take my tax money and assure me that it’ll go to the right purpose, that it will help the poor, then fine. But I’m not sure a lot of it does. In fact, I know a lot of it doesn’t.

Tavis: What’s always strange to me about that argument, and this isn’t rocket science, is that people complain about how it’s not being spent, as if poor people are making these decisions. They’re not the ones.

Bennett: I understand that.

Tavis: It’s the elite who run Washington, and they’re managed by the lobbyists. So I don’t understand that argument.

Bennett: It’s the bureaucrats who often do it, that’s exactly right. When I tried to change Title I, for example, I tried to create a voucher program for kids particularly in the inner cities. I said, “Kids in the cities, they’re the kids who are suffering the most from the worst schools. They ought to have the opportunity to choose the schools that they want to go to or that their parents want them to go to.

I was opposed by – guess who? The teachers unions. There are interest groups lined up all the way when you talk about the money, and often, it doesn’t get to the poor. Again, I think the fact that a lot of it doesn’t get to the poor and get to the poor effectively is one of the major problems.

The other thing is handing out the money, and I know, I saw your first principle, that poverty is about not having enough money, right? And I think that’s right. But I think you and I would agree that you’ve got to know something about how to live in order to get out of poverty and stay out of poverty, and that’s the thing I spent most of my time on in this book and other work I’ve done.

Tavis: We do agree on that, and we talk about the fact that poverty is in part about not having enough money; it’s not about necessarily having character flaws, as people seem to suggest. You’re poor because you made bad choices.

Bennett: Some people are, some people have terrible luck, horrible circumstance.

Tavis: Well, for millions of Americans right now horrible circumstance, because if the new poor in this country, as we argue in the book, are the former middle class, tell that to the middle class person who did everything right, went to college, worked for years, and the bottom fell out.

Bennett: Yeah, that’s true. It is still true, however, and this was done by RAND, it was done by Brookings and it’s the thing that I find is most remarkable in American society and it’s still true – if you finish high school, graduate, if you get a job, if you get married, if you don’t have children before you get married and before the age of 21, you have a 75 to 80 percent chance of living in the middle class. If you want an anti-poverty program, that’s a great anti-poverty program.

Tavis: We agree on those numbers. All I’m saying is that the very persons who did all of that are the ones who are making up the greatest – the increasing numbers of poor are people who did that who are falling out of the middle class.

Bennett: Right, and hopefully they will get back in if we can get this economy going again. But you’re right about the growth of people. The new additions are coming from there, but there are still millions of people who never see that opportunity because those conditions aren’t satisfied in their lives.

Tavis: Since you were the education secretary, we talked about education a moment ago, let me come back to that. What is your assessment of the Obama program Race to the Top?

Bennett: It’s pretty good. I like the idea of incentives, the idea that you should get the – remind the states that the action’s in the states. It’s in the states, then it’s in the locale, the old Catholic principle of subsidiarity, the closer it is to the child, the more important it is.

The single most important person in the child’s life educationally is his parents. That’s critical. We know that, this is the great mystery of the Far East, the Asian mystery, the inscrutable Orient? They focus on their children’s education. They’re obsessive about their kids’ education.

Our kid doesn’t do well in math here in America, we say, “Your Aunt Gladys couldn’t do well in math, your grandmother couldn’t do well in math, you can’t do well in math.” (Laughter) In China, they say, “Work harder.” So anyway, there’s that.

But the performance of American education is not really what it should be, and Race to the Top is encouraging the states to have systems of excellence and accountability and that’s where I’ll tip my hat to Arne Duncan and the president, to have that accountability. That’s the thing that’s been missing.

I’ve argued for years, Tavis, the worst thing about our education system is it’s run for the sake of the producers, not for the sake of the consumers – the children.

Tavis: To your point, then, would you agree, then, that privatizing education, making education more for-profit now than ever before is the wrong approach?

Bennett: I don’t have a problem with for-profit education. I would like to see them – I think the real model for elementary and secondary education is what we do in higher education, which is you can take your Pell grant or your guaranteed student loan anywhere you want.

You can take it to an historically Black college university or a religious university – anywhere you want. But in the elementary and secondary, you can’t. I think a lot of kids that we have right now in lousy schools would do a lot better if they were able to go to a religious school or a private school, a school in a church basement. Even be homeschooled.

Tavis: I don’t disagree with that. You and I agree on so many things, and we disagree on others, as you said earlier. I don’t disagree with that, except that I think the approach ought not to be school choice but making all schools choice.

So when you start picking and choosing the better versus the worse, we know – the Department of Education right now, you ran it so you know this, they know where the 2,000 worst schools are in this country right now. They got them on a map on a big wall in Arne Duncan’s office.

They know where these schools are, so why make kids compete and have their name in a lottery? Does your lucky number come up as opposed –

Bennett: “Waiting for Superman,” right?

Tavis: “Waiting for Superman.” As opposed to making all of our schools choice?

Bennett: I’m with you. That’s what we used to call “full-scale choice,” and my critics called me “Full Moon Bennett” for full-school choice.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)

Bennett: No, absolutely, totally and completely. You saw that movie, “Waiting for Superman.” Heartbreaking, these parents waiting to get a chance, and this could be the child’s best chance at life. In the meantime we’re spending $600 billion on this enterprise. We should be doing a whole lot better.

I had a revelation. When I was secretary of Education, the secretary of Agriculture, they found an Ebola virus in some food stand out in Portland, Oregon. He got on the plane and went out there and shut down that restaurant and all the food distributors, all of the parts of the restaurant chain that were getting from that distributor. Why? Because of a rotten hamburger.

We went to a school in Baltimore – I visited schools, that’s one thing I wanted to do. My wife works in the city as an educator, said, “Go teach in the schools.” I visited a school in Baltimore where not one kid was reading at grade level.

Shut it down. Shut it down, the same way you shut down the hamburger stand that’s serving up a rotten hamburger. If they can’t teach one child to grade level at reading, that’s not a school, that’s something else.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) the campaign for a second. I’m going to come back (unintelligible).

Bennett: Sure, sure, sure.

Tavis: So Romney seems to be the presumptive nominee. Let me start by asking whether or not you’re okay with that, you personally, and more broadly, are conservatives getting okay with this?

Bennett: Oh, I think so. I think so. It was a rough and bloody primary for Republicans, but it was, I think it toughened them. What does Nietzsche say? What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Bennett: He’s pretty smart. He’s had to be pretty tough, and I think he’s about as ready as he can be. But there are people, there are people who call my radio show who won’t have it. They won’t have it. They won’t have it because they don’t think he’s really conservative, they won’t have it because some people are bothered by the Mormon business.

There are other reasons. But the party had better unite, because it’s a very tough fight and it’s uphill for Republicans to win this election.

Tavis: So for those who call your program, I was about to ask that so I’m glad you told me that, for those who call your program, “Morning in America,” and won’t have it, what do they do on election day in November.

Bennett: Well, people will say they’ll sit out. I don’t know if they will or not. Most Republicans are pretty loyal at the end of the day. They’ll go, they may not campaign, they may not stuff envelopes, but they’ll go.

There’s a thing that unites a lot of Republicans; that is, they do not like Barack Obama. They’re just not happy with Barack Obama. So we’ll see how that figures.

Tavis: What’s your sense of who has the greater problem with a core of his base? Obama has a bigger problem with progressives or Romney has a bigger problem with conservatives?

Bennett: I think they both have a problem. I’ve been listening to people – I think they both have a problem, and one of my questions is what’s going to happen to the president’s base with the college students? I see he’s gone to 130 colleges and I see this student loan thing that’s going on. By the way, there’s another example.

Tavis: I was going to ask you what you thought about that.

Bennett: I think it’s a bad idea. I’m going to have Congressman –

Tavis: Whose idea? The president’s bad idea or the Congress’s bad idea?

Bennett: The president’s bad idea, seconded by Mitt Romney’s bad idea. Here’s why. What we have is 3.4 percent for your student loan. They finance that by saying when it got to this point they dig it up, they double it to 6.8 percent for your loan. Now they’re going to leave it at 3.4.

Those loans mostly go to middle class kids. Now, I’m all for helping middle class kids, but the kids who are really getting clobbered here are the poor kids, and those are the Pell grants.

I would subsidize more the Pell grants for the poorer kids who are not able to go to college, and I would then let the middle class kids take the higher interest rate. It is still economically a great deal to go to college. You know that. You’ve seen the differences between what your life income is if you graduate from college. Graduate from college as opposed to just graduating from high school.

This subsidy, again, of the middle class, somebody did the figures the other day; somebody at Cornell did the figures the other day on inequality, growth and inequality. I know it’s a favorite theme of yours and in your book.

One of the reasons that we’re seeing this growth in inequality is because more and more of the subsidies have been going to the middle class from the real poor. Again, I think that’s a mistake.

Tavis: Well, two things. We make that case in our book, because politicians love playing to the angst of the future of the middle class, but that’s the question we raise. If the middle class is disappearing as we know it, if the middle class make up the new poor, who are you going to talk to this time on the campaign?

Every time there’s a program that plays ostensibly to the middle class as opposed to poor people. So we’re talking about student loans versus Pell grants – you’re right. Every politician wants to, whether it’s Romney or Obama, they want to focus all their energy and effort on the middle class as if they are the largest voting bloc, and traditionally, they have been. They turn out to vote. But they’re slipping into the ranks of the poor now.

Bennett: I understand.

Tavis: So that’s a real problem.

Bennett: I divide it up a little differently when I think, when I write, and that’s the older folks and the children, and we’ve been very generous with our older folks. I’m an old guy now.

It’s hard to believe, but I’m an old guy, and I listen to old people sometimes sitting around telling each other ways they can get more money from the federal government while the kids are not getting what they need, either in terms of very basic basics of education, nutrition and other things, and I think that’s a real scandal. I think that’s a real problem.

Again, it’s back to my – I’m for an efficient government. I’m also for addressing this problem of the deficit. But there is so much waste, there’s so much money that we are putting out there to placate the middle class, and I think this one is a classic example. I told Chairman Klein, the education chairman – I’m going to argue with him about this tomorrow, because I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do in these circumstances.

Tavis: This is a bit of a non-sequitur, but just because I’m curious – so the political right, namely “Fox News” and others, have been beating up on the president, speaking of going to those colleges, for campaigning on the taxpayers’ time. I suspect every president does some of that. Is that much ado about nothing, or is that –

Bennett: Much ado about nothing. Where the president goes, the president goes, and arguably he has legitimate business everywhere he goes. I don’t think there’s any question he’s picking states that are going to matter. North Carolina, heaven knows, it matters. (Laughter)

But this is, I think, part of the president’s getting out and talking to the people. Now, if they choose those states which are most advantageous to them, so what? All presidents do it. He’s done it more. He’s done it more. It runs a risk. I just think is it prudent for them to do this, to have people draw the conclusion that it’s being done for political reasons.

As a famous Republican adviser said once – I saw him on TV – he said, they said, “What’s the president doing?” “Well, he’s out trying to appear to be presidential.” (Laughter) Well, he is the president. This is the illusion, TV, the whole media thing. Anyway.

Tavis: To your point about TV and media, one last question about politics.

Bennett: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: The money. So Romney is apparently going to raise about $600 million, they’re trying. Obama raised $760 million last time. You put that together that’s what, $1.35 billion, $1.4 billion. That’s not including the money that the super-PACs are going to spend. Your sense of super-PACs, the money – what do you make of all this? It’s a $2 billion campaign.

Bennett: I know it’s a $2 billion campaign. I know. I told you about $2 billion were just wasted in Title I. Give me a thresher and I’ll go through the federal government and I’ll get you that $2 billion back.

I don’t mind spending money on that when you think about some of the stuff we spend money on in this country as private citizens. I won’t be a scold on this, but we can afford our political campaigns.

Tavis: “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood,” what prompted this one?

Bennett: The condition of man. I was doing some research, some studies, and then interestingly, talking to or listening to a lot of young women, saying, “Where are the men?”

They’re very upset about the condition of men. Not necessarily your condition or my condition, but you talk to young women and they will tell you men are – 50 or 60 may be the new 40, but they think 25 is the new 15. The childishness, the adolescence, the juvenilization of males.

What do we know? We know that for the first time, women graduating from college are more ambitious, they have a higher level of achievement and a much higher level of educational performance than men. Sixty-five percent of women now say career and a great job is very important to them, more than men said – 50, 52 percent.

The gap between graduation is now – I think you probably know this – it used to be about 60-40 male to female. It’s now 62-38 (unintelligible).

Tavis: Worse than that in Black America.

Bennett: In historically Black colleges and universities, it’s about 70-30. What’s going on? My wife said, “We said, ‘You go, girl,’ and the girls went.” But what happened to the boys? The boys are being left behind and they’re not putting it together. They’re not working; they’re not acting like men are supposed to act, and like we think women want them to act.

So this is an encouragement to boys to be the kind of men that I think they want to be and that women want them to be.

Tavis: If I took the conservative line of thinking, the conservative argument on these kinds of issues, what they typically say is that the problem with Black America is that there aren’t fathers in the household. I hear that over and over and over again, and there is some truth to that, obviously.

Bennett: Sure, sure.

Tavis: But you’re talking about women across the board. So what’s the problem with white guys?

Bennett: Oh, it’s the same thing. There are more poor white guys not meeting their responsibilities than there are African Americans. This is something in Americans’ head, where they think of poverty and they think it’s Black.

It’s mostly white, as you say in your book, and it’s all – what, it’s about three to one, isn’t it? Some 30 million I think white Americans in poverty, some 10 million Black Americans, about 12 million Hispanic Americans, the last numbers I saw.

Look, Charles Murray’s last book talks about this class divide, and I think that’s the way to look at it. The upper classes have stayed with these traditional values. They have stayed with the values of marriage and work and faith and law-abidingness.

We’re not talking race here, we’re talking about conditions for success no matter what color you are or where you come from. The decline in these things has been in those border communities and poorer communities, which is the worst possible thing to happen, because it keeps people from going to the next level.

Tavis: Is there a way to arrest this development?

Bennett: I think yeah – education, largely. Leadership. I think there’s opportunities in this country for people to step forward who care about poverty and to step up and say, “We need to talk about the family, we need to talk about work, we need to talk about faith, we need to talk about the virtues that used to describe the aspirations of most Americans,” and I think that is an inducement, encouragement, to men as what we need to do.

You may be one of those guys with this book. You’ve got a platform with this book, if I can just say that to you, and I think that someone who understands poverty, understands all the dimensions to it and will talk candidly to people maybe is the single most important thing we could do.

Tavis: Well, if this book does anywhere near as well as yours have done, we might make a dent in the subject, who knows? But your books have done perennially well, as this one has. It’s called “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood,” by “The New York Times” perennial, as I said, best-selling author, William Bennett, former education secretary during the Reagan Administration.

Secretary Bennett, good to have you back on this program.

Bennett: Thank you very much, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you. So do me a favor. I’ve brought you a book. I’ll sign that for you if you sign that for me.

Bennett: Absolutely, thank you very much.

Tavis: Here’s the Sharpie.

Bennett: Thank you very much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: August 29, 2012 at 11:46 pm