A Few Words to, and From, the Wise by William Bennett

I'll tip a glass of something cold and bubbly on Columbus Day--Sunday--a nod of appreciation to a great explorer.

Columbus got a bit of a drubbing a few years back. It became politically correct to downplay his contributions. But I would never have crossed the length of Orange County in one of those dinky, rat-infested boats of his, let alone sail off into a sea of unknowns for months at a time. He deserves a toast for guts alone.

Columbus Day and the recent airing of those secret Lyndon Johnson tapes has had me thinking about national honor lately. Plus, I've been reading an intriguing new book called "Our Sacred

Honor." It's a collection of speeches and letters from great minds of the early days of our republic--reminders of our moral compass. (If one were to judge by quality

of letters alone, we might have been better off if the first president named Adams was Abigail instead of John.)

The author of "Our Sacred Honor" is William J. Bennett, who served in the cabinets of both Reagan and Bush and was advisor to several '96 candidates for the Republican ticket. Bennett, a leading voice of conservatives, also has been mentioned by some pundits as presidential timber himself.

He will be in Orange County on Sunday to speak at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda at 1:30 p.m. (tickets $6) and sign copies of his book ($25) at 3 p.m.

Bennett keeps a high profile on the political scene. It seems as if he's on someone's talk show almost every week. He'll do at least one radio gig while he's here. After his Nixon Library appearance, he's off to Bakersfield for a huge Republican confab, with most of the potential GOP presidential contenders there.

I asked Bennett in a telephone interview when he found time to read all these writings from the country's first leaders, let alone edit them down to book form. "It's what I do when I'm on the plane crisscrossing the country," he said. "I've actually been compiling these papers since college."

Neither Democrats nor Republicans today are immune from learning from our Founding Fathers--or embarrassing them. I'm thinking of a Democrat putting a "For Rent" sign on the Lincoln bedroom at the White House. And a Republican (Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove) taking advantage of his privilege as a former congressman to stand on the floor of the House at the Capitol and angrily challenge an adversary to "step outside."

Bennett theorizes that the Founders would be shocked by some of today's shenanigans.

"They would be depressed at the smallness of it," Bennett told me in a telephone interview. "They dealt with issues above the neck, not below the belt."

Bennett does not downplay the faults of America's early leaders--slaveholders, adulterers, failed farmers among them. But they were also dedicated to great ideas, he said: "They were large-minded. Their thoughts were about the world, not about their images."

A sampling:

* Thomas Jefferson was our third president and before that secretary of State. Yet his epitaph, which he wrote himself, makes no mention of these great deeds. Instead, it credits him as "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia."

* The book contains my own favorite lines from the eve of the American Revolution, from Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775: "Gentlemen may cry peace, peace! But there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle?"

* Presidents Jefferson, John Adams and James Monroe, by happenstance, all died on July 4. Friends of a dying, 85-year-old James Madison suggested in the summer of 1836 that he take medicines that could prolong his own life a few days--so he too could die on that patriotic day. Madison considered that rubbish, and died June 28, a week early.

But his patriotism was their equal. He wrote in a letter released after his death: "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."

There are 400 pages of documents in Bennett's book; I learned something new from nearly all of them. No matter whether you agree with Bennett's politics, there's something comforting that we can all derive lessons from the same sources.

That Tender Age: My son turned 15 this week. You can bet I'll show him this from Jefferson, who wrote to a friend about his own grandson at age 15: "I am in hopes he possesses sound judgment and much observation; and, what I value more than all things, good humor. Certainly we had all rather associate with a good-humored, light-principled man, than with an ill-tempered rigorist in morality."

What About 2000? Bennett insists he would never be a presidential candidate himself before 2008--that's when his last child completes high school. It's too early now for him to endorse anyone, Bennett said, though he quickly mentioned that "I'd like to see Gen. [Colin] Powell get back in the race. He would certainly make it interesting."

Bennett's own advice to potential candidates, he said, is that they tackle specific issues early. And he's got strong ideas on which ones: "values, education, crime, drugs."

Wrap-Up: Of all the marvelous people in Bennett's book, none of them, to me, writes more eloquently than Abigail Adams. In a 1782 letter to her husband, John, while he was on a lengthy tour in France (to help settle the war with Great Britain), she wrote:

"I recollect the untitled man to whom I gave my heart, and in the agony of recollection, when time and distance present themselves together, wish he had never been any other. How dearly I have paid for a titled husband; should I wish you less wise, that I might enjoy more happiness? I cannot find that in my heart."

Now that is a love letter I'd keep under my pillow forever.

Jerry Hicks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling The Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823, by fax at (714) 966-7711 or by e-mail at jerry.hicks@latimes.com.

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