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White House Rebukes Bennett for Outburst at Meeting

Times Staff Writers

The White House rebuked William J. Bennett, the federal drug policy director, for his caustic comments at this week’s education meeting with the nation’s governors, senior officials said Friday.

They expressed concern that Bennett had risked straining state cooperation, which is essential to his leadership in the drug war.

“Thanks for your comments. They weren’t helpful,” White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu told Bennett in a telephone conversation Thursday, according to White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater.

Officials Annoyed

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Although officials said the incident would not harm Bennett’s standing in the Administration, they were clearly annoyed, and one said that it would leave “some residual bad taste” among his colleagues.

Bennett, a former secretary of education who has a reputation for speaking his mind and for occasional displays of temper, told reporters after one of the closed discussion sessions Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va.:

“There was pap--standard Democratic pap. There was standard Republican pap, and there was stuff that rhymes with pap on both sides, too. A couple of good exchanges--there was an occasional outburst of candor, which was encouraging. Attempts to suppress it, but a few people persisted in candor, so we got a few points made.

“Much of the discussion took part in total absence of any knowledge of what works or what’s effective with the actual experience of school, but occasionally governors who have been in schools brought their experience to bear, and that seemed to be helpful,” Bennett said.

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On Friday, when Fitzwater disclosed the gist of Sununu’s message, Bennett’s office refused to make any comment.

“I won’t have anything at all to say on that. You can understand why,” spokesman Donald Hamilton said.

Bennett’s patience appears to have been worn precariously thin in recent weeks during what was almost daily testimony before more than a dozen congressional committees. Some associates have expressed surprise that the drug policy director has not expressed himself earlier in an outburst like that at Charlottesville.

Bennett seemed to recognize that he had spoken out of turn, one Administration official said. “I think he feels pretty bad about this,” the official said.

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Administration officials were irked that Bennett, on the opening day of the two-day conference called to assess the state of education in the United States, would make any public comment suggesting that the meeting was anything less than a total success.

“The summit was going really well, and this was the only dark spot,” said one senior White House official. He said that Bennett’s job requires the support of the governors. Thus, his less-than-flattering remarks on the education acumen of the state chiefs “probably won’t help” when he approaches them on such controversial issues as funding for drug treatment centers or prisons.

As director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Bennett is charged with coordinating the work of local and state governments with that of federal offices and with encouraging efforts at state and local levels.

Still, the official said, “it takes a pretty strong person to do the work we ask him to do. Maybe this is the price we pay.”

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As a result of the conversation with Sununu, one official said, Bennett “knows he did a stupid thing.” But this official put the incident in the category of “spilled milk,” suggesting that the impact would not be lasting.

“It’s bad. It’s unfortunate. It has no long-term effect,” he said.

“Hopefully, it’s just a function of his being overtired and saying something he shouldn’t have said--hopefully,” one White House official said.


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