In a revealing account of the ideological clashes that dominated President Reagan's first term, former Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell has lambasted right-wing conservatives inside and outside the White House for constantly harassing him and questioning his loyalty during his four years in the Cabinet.
In the current issue of an obscure education journal, Bell writes that those conservative extremists represented "the lunatic fringes of ideological political thought" and were granted extraordinary access to the White House through their ally, Edwin Meese III, then counsel to the President.
"I felt the sting and viciousness of their attacks when I was there, and I let it all pour out in this article," Bell said in an interview Wednesday.
Bell, usually noted for his quiet, unassuming ways, pokes fun at the style of ties Meese and other conservatives routinely wore "that identify them as true patriots and faithful revolutionaries," but he exempts Meese from his most stinging criticism.
"I never considered Ed to be one of these radical nuts," he said in the interview. "He was conservative, and he and I didn't agree on a number of policies . . . but he wasn't one of these people who say: 'Don't spend a dime of federal money on education.' "
Bell said that the White House "zealots," whom he does not identify by name in the March issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, were mostly mid-level staff members working for Meese who took part in policy deliberations. "The vigorousness of their response cast a certain pall over the climate," he said.
As an example of efforts by the "lunatic fringe" to shape Administration policy, Bell cited the conservatives' goal of abolishing all federal education programs, including aid to the handicapped, civil rights enforcement and student financial assistance. And he cited bilingual education as an example of the inconsistency that he said has plagued education policy.
Initially, the White House moved to scale back bilingual education, Bell said, but he was surprised later to hear Reagan assure Latinos in Texas during the 1984 election campaign that he would support continued funding for the program.
Bell singles out Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, as one of the "far-out people" who had entree to the White House even after publicly criticizing the President as having betrayed his conservative backers and having allowed himself to be controlled by more moderate staff members, such as then-Chief of Staff James A. Baker III.
Weyrich dismissed Bell's attack as "a free want ad," suggesting that the former education secretary was angling for a high-paying job in the education Establishment.
Bell has been a professor of educational administration at the University of Utah since he left Reagan's Cabinet in December, 1984. When told of Weyrich's comment, he said: "I already have a post, and I'm not looking for another one."
Burton Yale Pines, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that Meese often turned to for advice, said that Bell was "constantly embattled" in office because he was "out of step" with Reagan.
'Should Have Resigned'
"He should have resigned, but he decided to hang on and try to buck the Administration," Pines said. "I understand that he feels bitter, but it was his own doing."
Pines said that conservatives are pleased with Bell's successor, William J. Bennett, who raised controversy in education circles with his evangelistic espousal of Reagan's budget cuts and his outspoken support for education vouchers that would allow parents greater freedom to choose private schools for their children.
"Bennett is very much in tune with the Reagan vision," Pines said. "Everything Bill is doing you can assume Bell was dragging his feet on or opposing."
'Akin to McCarthyism'
Bell says in his article that the policies put forward by his conservative opposition would destroy public education, and he likens their attacks to "something akin to McCarthyism."
He says that the war between right-wing and moderate conservatives made consistent policy-making impossible in Reagan's first term.