Drug czar-designate William J. Bennett, under fire for his past outspokenness, reluctantly agreed before a Senate committee Wednesday to be “less the philosopher and more the administrator” in the war on drugs.
The grudging pledge came amid Democratic criticism of Bennett’s past statements on a wide range of subjects and the disclosure that as education secretary last year he drafted a memo calling on the Ronald Reagan Administration to give leadership of drug interdiction efforts to the military.
“Do you think you can restrain yourself?” asked Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). ". . . You’ve been a real loose cannon at times.”
“That’s fair enough,” Bennett conceded. But he bristled at what he sarcastically described as the notion that “I ought to disassemble my bully pulpit, put on my green eyeshade and run numbers for a couple years.”
“Why take the job if you’re just going to be a figurehead?” Bennett said. “The pay is horrible, the hours are long and the subject is depressing.”
Despite Bennett’s agreement to cut a narrower swath than he had in the education department, both Metzenbaum and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) nevertheless indicated that they might oppose Bennett’s nomination on grounds that his lack of diplomacy threatened the bipartisanship and inter-agency cooperation they said was vital in the anti-drug effort.
There was no sign that any of their colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is holding the confirmation hearings on the post, would join them in opposition; indeed, a number of senators praised Bennett for being what Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) called “no Walter Wallflower.”
But the sometimes-contentious tenor of the hearing appeared to foreshadow further conflict between the Congress and the blunt-speaking future drug czar on what Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) described as “our dominant domestic concern.”
Bennett, who has been directed by Congress to develop a comprehensive anti-drug strategy within 180 days of taking office, steadfastly refused Wednesday to provide an early indication of the approach he was likely to favor.
“I’m not going to give my recommendations and then conduct my study,” he said.
But, playing with a plastic policeman toy given to him by his son for the occasion, Bennett challenged those who had expressed pessimism about prospects for curbing drug use. “It’s way too soon to say (the drug war) is over, we lost, because we haven’t really waged it yet,” he said.
While Bennett said he supported some drug education initiatives and believed that they worked, he indicated he believed many drug users are “lost causes.” Citing Los Angeles street gangs as an example, he said: “It’s been said there’s no point in preaching to the choir. It may be that there’s no point in preaching to the Bloods and the Crips.”
The debate about Bennett’s views on the military’s role in the anti-drug effort surfaced when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), produced a copy of a memorandum the nominee sent last March 18 to then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III. In an underlined passage, it declared: “It is time to give the military the mission of leading” the drug interdiction effort.
Noting that Pentagon officials had shown no appetite for the role, Bennett said in a later memo: “They have been burned and want to avoid a clear and open-ended responsibility that could get them burned again. Nevertheless, we must do more . . . on the supply side using military resources.”
Bennett refused to say whether he still shared that view, curtly telling Kennedy: “I’ll let you know in six months.”
Metzenbaum’s ire was raised when Bennett, whose top advisers are white males, responded brusquely when challenged about his commitment to include members of minority groups in top levels of his new anti-drug office, the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
In a heated exchange, Bennett said he was aware of the need to demonstrate “sensitivity” to the minority groups most affected by the drug plague but steadfastly refused to promise specifically that he would hire minorities.