Man and the Hour Meet in Bennett : Hip Maverick Takes Over in Nation’s War on Drugs
Back in 1967, as the waves of student unrest and the counterculture broke over the campus of the University of Texas, a graduate student named William J. Bennett cut a memorable figure at philosophy department parties.
He would down a few Lone Star beers, squash his cigarette and pick up a guitar. The music was the Animals’ classic, “House of the Rising Sun,” but the words were the opening lines of “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus"--the seminal discourse by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
“The world is all that is the case,” Bennett would warble, parroting the abstruse propositions all philosophy students were required to read. " . . . The world of facts, not things.”
Elsewhere on campus, the smell of marijuana and strains of acid rock served notice that the times were changing. Long hair was hip. So were sandals and psychedelic drugs.
Austin was the wintering place for San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. And nowhere was that influence so evident as in Nueces House, a “pre-hippie” student co-op whose 23-year-old graduate supervisor would one day be tapped as the nation’s first drug czar.
Yet where his peers saw creative, mind-expanding possibilities in drugs, or at least harmless fun, Bennett saw something disturbing. Following the lead of a moralistic faculty mentor, he clung conspicuously to the earlier symbols of rebellion--beer and cigarettes, motorcycles and rock ‘n’ roll.
Two decades before Nancy Reagan’s campaign, say those who knew him then, Bill Bennett shunned drugs and what they stood for. Today, with national attitudes swinging sharply away from the permissiveness of the 1970s and President Bush vowing to lift the scourge of narcotics, the man and the hour seem to have met in Bennett.
Selected over candidates with extensive law enforcement experience, he embodies what is expected to be the central theme of the new Administration: the argument that strength of character and individual willpower may be more potent than police work in the war against drugs.
From today’s vantage point, Bennett’s record--the party-loving “regular guy” whose regard for moral conduct and abiding ambition caused him to avoid even marijuana while a student--provides a fitting biography for an anti-drug chieftain.
In the Cabinet-level post, created by a frustrated Congress to make one person accountable, Bennett is to knit together the federal government’s fragmented anti-drug efforts and coordinate the work of more than a dozen departments and agencies. He will deal with everything from military interdiction and intelligence to drug testing of air traffic controllers and admonishing children in federal schools on the dangers of drugs.
He is expected to exhort as well as command--providing inspiration that might curb the nation’s demand for narcotics.
In that regard, those who remember Bennett less than fondly call attention to another side to his credentials.
Resident for more than a decade on campuses that were the laboratories of change, Bennett came ultimately to regard himself as an embodiment of the “true counterculture,” his friends say--a lone voice against a misguided chorus.
As such, he was resented by some for what they saw as his intolerance.
Moreover, drug abuse is most prevalent among many whose lives are more troubled than Bennett’s has been and who do not have the profound self-confidence he has always evinced. In this context, Bennett may find it hard to reach out successfully to those whose attitudes he now seeks to sway.
“People have always been put off by him,” said Timothy Lowe, a longtime friend. Said Steve Craddock, who knew Bennett while he was attending law school at Harvard: “Bill never had a penchant for tolerating divergence from the norm.”
Nevertheless, his stand in the ‘60s has in part won him the first opportunity to show whether he has an answer for the ‘80s.
Eye to Future
The recollections of more than two dozen former Bennett friends and associates interviewed for this story read like highlights of a resume compiled with prescience for the role he would later assume.
--His near-fanatical love for rock music was “severely tested” in the mid-'60s by the British invasion of pop music and by “lyrics that glorified drug use,” according to Ken Watson, his roommate first at Williams College in New England and later at Texas.
--When marijuana smoke first began to seep into the Nueces House hallways in the fall of 1966, Bennett spoke out, warning residents that drug use could be harmful to them and to the co-op’s status. Unable to stop the trend, he grew uncomfortable and was regarded as an outcast, though friends say he did not become a crusader on the issue.
--When he was a teaching fellow at Southern Mississippi University in 1967-68, he “took delight in the straight-arrow ethos,” according to Lowe. “How refreshing it was that drugs had not become a widely used feature of life,” Lowe remembers Bennett observing.
--Later, while teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the early 1970s, Bennett became infuriated at seeing “spaced-out students, all of them high on drugs and wasting their lives,” crowding pristine streets named after signers of the Constitution, said John Burkett, another friend.
“He has the analytic abilities to get ahold of the problem, and he has the right principles to direct him toward the right solution,” said John Silber, philosophy department chairman during Bennett’s time at Texas and now president of Boston University. “I think he’s one of the few people alive who has the courage to do the job.”
In the past, Bennett has advocated the use of increased military force against drug producers and traffickers. But in comments the day of his nomination, Bennett said he expects in his new job to conduct “a conversation with the American people. . . .
“In the war against drugs,” he said, “you don’t, I guess, expect me to be walking a beat or patroling in people’s houses.”
Born in 1943 to a middle-class family in Brooklyn, Bennett spent most his young adulthood as student, teacher and administrator in universities. He left campuses behind in 1976, when he became executive director and later president of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.
A big man with a lumbering gait, Bennett still looks like the college football lineman he was at Williams, the elite New England liberal arts institution where he received a scholarship after attending a Jesuit high school in Washington.
As an outspoken education secretary under former President Ronald Reagan from 1985 until last summer, Bennett maintained that rough-hewn image. He stubbornly remained a bachelor until age 39 (he married Mary Glover in 1982 and they have a 4-year-old son) and even played quarterback on the department’s team in Sunday morning games on the Mall.
With his bearish appearance and his relish for the rough-and-tumble approach to intellectual combat, Bennett was the model of the self-made scholar. He was a package of classical allusions and beer and cigarettes who disdained effete intellectuals.
That also had been his image when neoconservatives persuaded Reagan to appoint him to head the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1981, and earlier, as the young student and teacher in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“He was making a statement,” said a close Bennett friend. “He was saying: ‘Look at me, I’m drinking beer, I’m dressing like a bum, I love rock ‘n’ roll music, I love football, and yet I’m a philosopher too.”
A back injury at Williams helped philosophy supplant football as Bennett’s principal preoccupation. But his new commitment to Kant and Socrates did not otherwise separate him from the mainstream of student life in the days before the drug culture dawned.
Along with most of his classmates, Bennett turned out enthusiastically for fraternity rush despite a college decision to phase out the fraternity system altogether. While illicit drugs were hardly to be found at Kappa Alpha, the house of his choice--or indeed anywhere else at Williams in 1961-65--beer was still plentiful, even for the underaged. Bennett, friends say, drank his share.
Yet he seemed precociously aware of long-term consequences. In a Shakespeare class, Bennett identified closely with Prince Hal--the fun-loving rapscallion who distanced himself from his roistering friends as he came to realize that he would become King Henry V.
“The lesson was that responsibility set limits to the kind of fun you can have,” said Lowe, who took the course with Bennett. “That was a hard message at Williams, and it was one that we spent a lot of time talking about . . . I think public service loomed for Bill early on.”
Mirroring the liberal drift of their generation, Bennett and his friends regularly attended the meetings of the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. But while others decided to join the radical group, Bennett stalled. Ultimately, he heeded the advice of his older brother, Robert, who warned that association with a “fringe group” might later prove troublesome.
Regarded as Leftist
Nevertheless, the Bennett who arrived at the University of Texas as a first-year graduate student in the fall of 1965 was regarded by his classmates as a leftist--a disciple of William Sloane Coffin Jr., the nationally prominent anti-war leader and popular motorcycle-riding chaplain from Yale, and earlier Williams.
Indeed, once Bennett saved enough money, he bought a motorcycle of his own, and took delight in roaring around Austin on his fast new machine.
But Silber, the philosophy department chairman and moral preacher whose influence over Bennett would be difficult to exaggerate, put a quick end to such nonsense.
Declaring motorcycles unfit for rational men, Silber issued a “no motorcycles” ultimatum for his graduate students. An intimidated Bennett obeyed. He even bought Silber’s ’52 Chevrolet.
“Silber was kind of a puritan,” then-graduate student David Solomon said. “He hated long hair, couldn’t stand bell-bottoms, and was hard on drugs.” He even lectured about “the impossibility of a philosopher doing his job if he had a wet soul,” according to Larry Hickman, a Bennett classmate.
Still, Silber did like to invite students to his home for darts and beer. And Bennett was far from a teetotaler.
“We consumed massive quantities of alcohol,” said classmate John Hardwig of these graduate-school get-togethers. Indeed, Bennett’s appetites for smoking and drinking were such that Hardwig said he would have been “shocked” 20 years ago if told that Bennett one day would hold a position of authority over social behavior.
By the standards set by Silber and emulated by Bennett, vices such as drinking and smoking were permissible if they did not interfere with one’s work. Thus Bennett remained a smoker until he was nominated to the drug czar post. Asked then how he could display an addiction of his own while condemning others for not abandoning theirs, he agreed to kick the habit.
Life of Principle
Drugs, illegal and mind altering, have never met the Silber test. “You had to lead a life of principle,” said David Gerber, a former Silber student. “You couldn’t just drift hither and yon.”
In Bennett’s periodic public pronouncements about drugs, those who knew him at Texas have heard a distinct Silber echo. Silber suggests that should not be surprising. “Civilized people,” he said in a recent interview, “have never been confused about whether intoxicants diminish public performance.”
It was Silber, ironically, who helped bring Bennett to Nueces House in the autumn of 1966. It was one of two “College Houses” established through foundation grants to stimulate academic debate in a residential setting. Silber encouraged Bennett to take up residence.
For all its high ideals, Nueces House was no pristine ivory tower.
In the fall of 1966, the emphasis on intellectual curiosity attracted certain collateral effects. “In College House,” said a Bennett friend, “would be the kids doing drugs, the kids strongly opposed to the war, the first long-hairs in Texas.”
“Peyote was wild,” said another friend, John Burkett. “There was LSD, speed . . . you just had a lot of crazy stuff.”
“In College House . . . " said former resident Dean Rindy, “Bill Bennett was in an atmosphere in which most people around him were doing things he’s condemning now as hell’s power.”
No one interviewed offered any indication that Bennett might have used illegal drugs, and the nominee declined a request for an interview. Asked previously whether he had used drugs, Bennett has answered enigmatically. But friends in touch with Bennett while this article was being prepared insisted that Bennett had never even smoked marijuana.
When marijuana first became apparent at Nueces House, “we tried to keep the place drug free,” said Watson, his roommate at the time.
Watson said Bennett pushed successfully for a house policy banning public drug use, telling residents at a house meeting that “this stuff was a foolish risk, and one that could not be afforded individually or as an organization.”
Not a Vigilante
But other former residents do not recall Bennett as an anti-drug champion. “I never remember him leading a gang of anti-drug vigilantes or speaking out against the virtues of pot,” Rindy said.
No one disputes that Bennett--not known then or now for a tolerant demeanor--grew progressively more uncomfortable at Nueces as the year progressed. At exam time he moved out to stay with a fellow graduate student, and looked forward to leaving Austin for a teaching post at Southern Mississippi University in Hattiesburg.
The social isolation of that small Southern town occasionally sent Bennett fleeing to New Orleans for a weekend respite of restaurants and bars. But he nevertheless found Mississippi exhilarating at the height of the civil rights movement, and friends say his time there redoubled his commitment to that cause.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, Tenn., Bennett was one of a small group of whites to attend a memorial service in Hattiesburg.
At the same time, however, the year in Mississippi served also to “jell (Bennett’s) own conservative view of things,” said Lowe. “Here were people who might be wrong about racial matters, but without drugs, could work and study without distraction.”
Amid what came later, Lowe and others said, Bennett would yearn out loud for the values of Hattiesburg. Moving on to Harvard Law School, Bennett increasingly found himself to be the odd man out. He stood as a stubborn symbol of stability in the Harvard freshman dormitory he supervised as proctor.
To John Curlutte, a newly arriving freshman from rural Illinois, Bennett seemed “the only clean-shaven guy in Harvard Yard” amid a sea of “guitars, long hair, drugs.” Under Bennett’s wing that year, conservative students mounted the first panty raid on Radcliffe that anyone could remember and once tried to block an SDS demonstration.
That was hardly the Cambridge norm. “Pot smoking was quite prevalent,” remembers David Lhow, another member of that class. And when Bennett learned that two freshmen in his dormitory were peddling heroin, he persuaded reluctant Harvard administrators to suspend them, according to an account provided by his friends.
Loved to Party
While his attitude on drugs was hardening, his stand on parties was unthreatened. Dormitory students recall vividly the Saturday night beer blasts that Bennett regularly hosted, spending university funds to supply underage freshmen. By morning, Lhow said, hallways were “ankle-deep in beer cans.”
In an era of Woodstock, they also remembered Bennett for his collection of classic rock ‘n’ roll--his emblem since the mid-'60s, when revolutions in rock left him mourning “the day the music died,” a friend said.
Indeed, while Matthews Hall stereos blared tapes of Woodstock performances by Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin for months after the concert, Bennett would voice displeasure, and could muster enthusiasm only for the Woodstock performance of Sha Na Na--a ‘50s revival group.
For Bennett, that music served as a symbol of a purer past, of beers and onion rings at Split Rail in Austin while listening to the Hootenanny Hoots.
Now, after more than 20 years, the values that once rendered Bennett an exception in his generation have emerged dominant again, elevating him to a status in which he is well-placed to promote them.
It is a sign of how drastically the tide has turned, however, that even Bennett’s staunch record does not lift him beyond question. The mere fact of having associated with drug users now makes his friends defensive.
For example, there is the future drug czar’s most infamous assignation: a “blind date” with Janis Joplin that he has told friends about for years. The woman who arranged it said Joplin and Bennett spent less than an hour drinking and talking during a summertime gathering at a “party barn” outside Austin.
A few months later, Joplin died of a heroin overdose.
Asked about such elements in Bennett’s past, one of his friends, Richard Sorenson, drafted and read out a formal statement:
“Bill was a big fan of Elvis Presley,” it said. “But in those days, we didn’t know about Elvis’ drug habits.”