Bennett the Menace

President-elect George Bush made a poor choice in naming William J. Bennett, the abrasive former secretary of education, to head the new Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Bennett’s appointment appears to have been a sop to the right wing of the Republican Party, whose activists have been unhappy with the appointment of many centrist Republicans to Cabinet-level jobs with the incoming Administration. Bennett became a favorite of the far right with his attacks on “liberal” education and espousal of education fundamentals while serving in President Reagan’s Cabinet. Although Bennett’s new job does not carry a Cabinet secretary’s title, it carries the same prestige and pay.

The job of “drug czar” was created by Congress last October to devise a national drug-control strategy and to better coordinate the efforts of the several government agencies that currently try to stem the flow of illegal drugs into this country or to deal with the social effects of drug abuse. The post could be contentious both diplomatically and bureaucratically. The head of any anti-drug campaign in this country must be prepared to handle often-sensitive negotiations with countries that produce or ship illegal drugs--like Mexico, Colombia and Turkey. And the drug czar must also help soothe internal rivalries between such traditionally independent government agencies as the FBI and the Coast Guard. That is reason enough, it seems, to have avoided shoot-from-the-lip candidates like Bennett or U.S. Customs Commissioner William von Raab, whose outbursts against Mexico have angered officials in that country.

Several of Bush’s advisers had urged that he appoint a senior law-enforcement official to the post, or someone like Arizona’s Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who began his public career as a county prosecutor on drug cases. When DeConcini, reluctant to give up his Senate seat, withdrew his name from consideration last month, Bennett began campaigning for the drug czar’s position despite having no background in law enforcement.


Now that the choice is made, Bennett should pay heed to the requirements of the legislation that created his new job before charging off toward the jungles of South America with a fleet of U.S. helicopters--a dramatic anti-drug effort called Operation Blast Furnace that was tried by the Administration two years ago in Bolivia, and for which Bennett has expressed much enthusiasm.

In its enabling legislation, Congress ordered the new drug-control director to prepare a report within 180 days of taking office that would recommend any changes that are needed in the organization, management and budgets of all agencies dealing with drug enforcement. We are convinced that a calm and honest assessment of this nation’s war on drugs will find that attempts to halt drug trafficking in source countries and at our borders, while certainly necessary components of the anti-drug effort, do not work as well as education and treatment programs that eliminate the demand for illegal drugs in this country. Programs like the Los Angeles Police Department’s DARE, which takes police officers into classrooms to teach students about the dangers of drugs, do not grab headlines like those of Operation Blast Furnace, and the Reagan Administration never spent enough on such programs. Neither will the Bush Administration--unless Bennett focuses on what is possible in the war on drugs rather than on what is merely dramatic.