Former U.S. Education Chief Decries Eroding Social Fabric : Society: William Bennett, speaking at CHOC fund-raiser, says today's children overall are in worse shape than youngsters of the Depression.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, speaking at a charity event Monday night, called the social programs of the 1960s a "well-intentioned" failure that is eroding America's social fabric.

"We tried" the Great Society, said Bennett. "It was a mistake, but a well-intentioned mistake. . . . The children of today overall are in worse shape than the children of the Depression."

Bennett's remarks came at a fund-raiser for Children's Hospital of Orange County held at the Hyatt Regency. The best-selling author was the keynote speaker in the inaugural Faces of Caring Benefit, which honored 57 community volunteers and was expected to raise more than $100,000 for CHOC.

The remedy to America's pressing social ills will not come from Washington, Bennett said, but from local communities and families. American families are disintegrating, he said, because parents are placing their personal happiness over maintaining commitments to marriage and family.

"We are asking too much of our politicians and not enough of our institutions, of our neighborhoods, of our families and ourselves."

Often considered a potential Republican presidential candidate, Bennett, the secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and the drug czar under George Bush, reiterated he would not seek the nation's highest office in 1996.

"I'm not interested in the peso. I'm not interested in international trade," Bennett said. "I don't want to get up and give a lot of speeches about things I don't care about."

Bennett clashed with party conservatives last year, angering many over his opposition to Proposition 187. Bennett, who accused Gov. Pete Wilson of "scapegoating" illegal immigrants, has warned the GOP-controlled Congress that enacting a similar measure nationally would prove divisive and ultimately hurt the Republican Party.

Bennett defended his position during a brief question-and-answer session.

"My first loyalty is not to my party," the Harvard Law School graduate said. "My first loyalty is to my country."

Before his 15-minute speech, Bennett signed copies of his book, "The Book of Virtues, a Treasury of Great Moral Stories." Using a collection of myths, fairy tales, poems and political speeches, the book encourages readers to behave ethically.

Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans from Placentia also was honored by the organization for her public service.

The event was sponsored by the Padrinos support group of CHOC and attended by about 800 guests.

In addition to donating money to CHOC, organizers say they hope the recognition of "unsung heroes" will encourage others to do the same.

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