Book World Live

William Bennett
Author, "America: The Last Best Hope"
Tuesday, June 13, 2006; 3:00 PM

If you believe that good historical writing involves years of archival research leading to the unearthing of new knowledge, [William J.] Bennett's book will disappoint; all the references are to the works of previous historians, and no new discoveries await the reader. But non-academically trained historians have always tried to capture the grand sweep of the American past, so Bennett belongs in a long-established tradition. He has a strong sense of narrative, a flair for anecdote and a lively style. -- Review: The Book of (Historical) Values (June 11).

William Bennett will be online to field questions and comments about his new book, "America: The Last Best Hope, Volume I, " which covers the history of the United States, from the discovery of the Americas to the eve of World War I.

William Bennett served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education under President Reagan, and as "drug czar" under President George H. Bush. He is the host of "Bill Bennett's Mornings in America," a nationally syndicated radio show.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


William J. Bennett: Hi. Im here, I welcome your questions...


Elma (Buffalo), NY: The Post review says your book "excuses the three-fifths rule that enabled slave owners to increase their power -in Congress]...for purposes of Congressional representation". On what basis do you excuse this compromise? Given that the parties already conceded the legality of slavery in the Constitution, and many southern contemporaries believed the growing South would increase its white population vis-a-vie the North, why not argue that the North could have bargained harder? Perhaps by saysing 3/5ths would become 3/10ths by 1830, 3/15ths by 1840, etc. John

William J. Bennett: I excuse the compromise because it was a good idea (the idea originated with James Wilson of Pennsylvania) to limit the South's domination and power by not allowing slave holders to count their slaves fully for purposes of representation. Thus limiting slave holders power, tragically slaves were not allowed to vote. Further, if the slaves were freed the Southern states would get more power so the incentives toward freedom were in the right place. It is a canard and a popular misconception that most of the members of the convention thought that slaves were less than fully human and not entitled to full representation.


Washington DC: I have a slight disagreement with your observations on the Twelfth Congress and the War of 1812. The timing of the U.S. entry into the war can be criticized, but some credit is due for the buildup of the U.S. navy, in the years immediately preceeding 1812, by the Committee on the Naval Establishment, chaired by Langdon Cheves (who was speaker during the Thirteenth Congress). See Henry Adams.

William J. Bennett: Thank you, it is an interesting thought.


Birmingham, Ala: Why should anyone care what you think is good or moral? You are no more moral or knowledgeable than a zillion other authors and talking heads? What qualifies you?

William J. Bennett: Anyone in America is free to write a book. I am happy that mine is being so well received. Though not, as your comment makes plain, by everyone.


McLean, Va: Your brand of self-congratulatory patriotism is being used by the current administration to justify terrible behavior because the "last best hope" is worth extreme measures. Aren't you concerned that using patriotism to gloss over torture, pre-emptive war, the manipulation of intelligence and the loss of civil liberties will erode long term patriotism?

William J. Bennett: My book tells the truth and if you read the book you will find there is no "self congratulatory" anything inside it.


Rockville, Md: Bill,

You told me at a Gonzaga H.S. alumni bash, some years ago, that you'd never run for office. Something to the effect that you weren't "wired that way." I think you'd make a great President, precisely because you don't crave it. And you certainly know how this joint operates. You could be the Great Communicator II. Any chance you'd change your mind?

William J. Bennett: No chance. Still not wired that way, see General Sherman in book for the timeless response to your question. But thanks for thinking of me.


St. Mary's City, Md.: Since your best-known books deal with virtues, what role do you think the government should play regarding virtues and values?

My own beliefs tend to be small-government libertarian, with the idea that values are best left to individuals and not the government. As a result, I find myself agreeing with conservatives on issues like welfare, which corrupts the work ethic of its recipients. But I find myself agreeing with liberals on issues like same-sex marriage--I don't think government has any compelling interest in preventing gay couples from marrying. As I see it, when it comes to values and virtues, government meddling can only bring bad results. Would you agree?

William J. Bennett: I am for limited but energetic government. And I do not think the state should ignore virtue. To a limited extent statecraft ought to be soulcraft.


Indianapolis, Ind: It seems to me that even the great men, like Thomas Jefferson, had to weigh their beliefs with the practical. Although Jefferson favored strong States government (verses a strong Federal government) he went and had the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT buy (or perhaps purchased is the better word) Louisiana from the French. What is your take on our past great leader's need to set aside their beliefs when events warranted? Making them seem less godlike and more like regular politicians. (not that that is bad!)

William J. Bennett: The Louisiana Purchase was the greatest diplomatic coup in history. Probably all presidents' views change some, expand or contract, are qualified by, the experience of being president. Great leaders do not hold their principles only abstractly they hold them to be true in the real world of events. Lincoln's understanding of equality was certainly grounded in his principled beliefs. But what he was prepared to do was, as it always must be, a function of facts and circumstances. The great statesmen apply their principles to events in the real world.


Arlington, Va: Dr. Bennett: What say you to the Post review that your book confirms that the liberal view prevails during the 19th Century? I'm a conservative, but it's really tiring to see and hear some of our compatriots twist to defend Calhoun, secession, the Civil War and even Jim Crow.

William J. Bennett: Some people do defend Calhoun, secession, and the "old South." I am for the older South, the one of Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. I am not nostalgic for the 19th century South but for much of the philosophical and political thought of 18th century Virginia. But as far as the liberals go, I do not know why people think that the "Know-Nothings" and every bigoted group should be associated with conservatism. By the way, this book shows that it was the Republican Party not the Democrat Party that was the great leader for equality and freedom. Until the 1950s or so the Republican party was a much greater hope for freedom and equality.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Bennett: In his review, Alan Wolfe writes that despite your conservatism, "Not a trace of sympathy for slavery and slave-owners appears in -this] book." Is this supposed to be some sort of compliment? In your experience, do most conservatives tend to be supportive of slavery and slave-owning, as Mr. Wolfe seems to think?

William J. Bennett: I am afraid a lot of liberals think very badly of conservatives. The one advantage that gives conservatives is that they are often underestimated. Liberals really do think that they are smarter than conservatives- that explains why they have trouble listening- which makes plain why liberal talk radio does not work. Also it is liberal bigotry that often leads to the harassment of conservative speakers on college campuses. But it is hard to find examples of conservatives limiting liberals' free speech on campus.


St. Louis, Mo: I find it interesting after talking to one of the prison directors at the federal level during your reign as the "zero," tolerance drug czar and asking him about you effectiveness...

That he stated, that having to cope with that mandate was one of the stupidest things that he had to endure during his career. That the prisons were full of petty criminals that had no business taking space away from serious criminals...and also during that time drug use went up 300%. And you like Bush and Co. called yourself successful as if pooping on your own shoes was a measure of success.

Ineffective, unintelligent and unwilling to learn is what I would call you, any comments. Or is this too close to you?

William J. Bennett: Do your homework. Drug use went down in the years I was Drug Czar and the years immediately following. I give most of the credit to the American people.


Buffalo, NY: Mr. Bennett

How do you account for the fact that although many people disagree with your views, they still have a "soft spot" for you?

Whatever it is, it's worth it's weight in gold.

William J. Bennett: I don't know what to say but thank you. There is an Irish saying about charm being "the capacity to elicit the answer yes before the question is asked."

But seriously I try very hard to run a radio show, Morning in America (#9 in the country and growing) which takes people seriously whatever their political leaning and tries to honor the socratic conditions of dialogue: candor, intelligence, and good will.


Philadelphia, Pa.: You wrote the following: "Until the 1950s or so the Republican party was a much greater hope for freedom and equality."

Do you conceed that the Democratic Party has been the polticial party producing greater hope and equality since the 1950s?

William J. Bennett: Great Question. Obviously I don't, however I do give credit to Kennedy and Johnson for important civil rights legislation and to great champions of equal rights such as Hubert Humphrey, and of course Dr. King. But civil rights legislation of the 60s would not have passed without republicans like Dirksen, and of course was opposed by Democrats like Robert Byrd and William Fulbright. And today equality and color blindness is championed by conservatives while many liberals want to apportion, admit, and reward using racial preference.


Maryland: A quote from you, "I am afraid a lot of liberals think very badly of conservatives." Oh c'mon now. Like the same can't be said for "conservatives" thinking badly of "liberals." Just look at a fellow Fox-News Channel buddy of yours, Ann Coulter. C'mon there are 2 sides to everything don't just say "liberals" think badly of "conservatives" and leave out the vice-versa

William J. Bennett: Sure. Sometimes conservative behave badly and sometimes liberals do. There is no monopoly on truth or virtue by either side. But on the merits of the case conservatives hold the upper hand; they have positions, policies, and they are actually governing. As a classic liberal, I am now a conservative because liberals have abandoned the field on issues like human rights, equality, military engagement, educational reform, immigration policy, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. To put it emphatically, if you are a believer in classical liberalism today you are a conservative. By the way I am not a contributor to Fox News though I used to be, I work for CNN now and am proud of it.


Arizona Bay, Ariz: When people on the right slam "activist" judges they seem to forget that these same "activist" judges also were the ones who helped further The Women's Rights movement as well as DE-segregation. How come when the right bash these judges they convienently leave these facts out?

William J. Bennett: The judges you rightly praise wielded the 14th Amendment. The activist judges of today are rewriting the 14th Amendment.


Lansing, Mich: In an earlier reply, you state "Until the 1950s or so the Republican party was a much greater hope for freedom and equality." Most people would give credit to FDR for pulling us out of the depression in the 1930's with his work programs and policies. Who are you thinking of among Republicans at that time who would have done a better job?

William J. Bennett: Good Question. Answer is forthcoming in Volume II of America: The last best hope next Spring.


Virginia: When Republicans use the term "liberal media" to try to point out how the media is slanted one way how come the same people seem to forget to mention that Faux-News is the mouth piece of the Republican party? Is this not hypocritical? Of course thatis is how Fox-News works, only really showing one side of the debate. But to them that's, "Fair and Balanced".

William J. Bennett: Most of the establishment media leans to the left. Fox tilts to the right. I work for CNN, but I comment on all manner of media. (By the way I see nothing wrong with having a cable network that leans right, they have been an excellent corrective to the usual orthodoxy)


Washington, DC: This might be appropriate given the wide expanse of your book and your writing. I'm a conservative who struggles with the issue of gay marriage. I have gay friends; I imagine you do too. The ones I know are in loving, stable relationships. I wouldn't belong to a church that would perform a gay marriage because I believe it to be un-Biblical. But why shouldn't I believe that in a secular society they should be able to get a marriage license? I have a hard time with the "slippery slope" argument that the next step is polygamy or some other such horror.

William J. Bennett: Good Question. (Too bad a fuller and fairer dicussion of this topic was not to be had on the Jon Stewart show. You can hear such a discussion on my radio show, Morning in America). Let me just say that you cannot argue that the slippery slope is not to your liking and is therefore invalid. The question is one of consistency and it is hard to argue against polygamy if you say that if people love each other they should be allowed to get married. If someone says the magic is in the number two, I say no, I think the magic is in two people, one man and one woman. Unless you grant the importance of consistency there really are no arguments at all, only assertions. You cannot waive the rules of logic.


Rockville, Md: Nice to see you back and I hope to see many more books with your point of view. I have to admit that I thought you a bit of a grump when President Clinton was in trouble. But that was a long time ago and lots of water has run under the bridge. Right now we need to win in Iraq and settle the Middle East question.

William J. Bennett: We sure do. Taking down Zarqawi was a big moment (BTW note how some people who are diminishing the importance of Zarqawi's death were formally making a lot out of his life and our inability to catch him)


New York City: I have been enthralled by NYC's local channel that shows archival press conferences, instructional films, and news documentaries -- they are instructive and overwhelmingly positive and respectful of the person(s) they discuss, i.e. I watched a contemporary news show on the '64 World

's Fair and Robert Moses -- although deferential in tone, I cam away thinking that though he is a "doer", he is also full of himself and has no regard for historic neighborhoods. Compared to today, we really are not given the chance to meet a newsmaker in a deferential and respectful way so opinions can be fomred by their own words and deeds. My point - would it not be far more effective to treat Sen. Reid, or Sen. Clinton with all dur respect and cordialness, soften the bombastic tone of politics, and let them peacefully, respectfully, and by a fireside hang themselves with their thoughts and ideas? Whould that not make for a better America?

William J. Bennett: Good Question. That's how they would be treated if they came on my show to which they have an open invitation. But the politics of personal destruction is a growth industry and that is too bad. I am for candor, directness, and tough criticism when appropriate. I have both given it and received it, but we have far too many cheap shots and ad hominems


Queens, NY: Bennett:

Pick one week to live in any American year since 1776, which year would you choose? Why?

William J. Bennett: Ok. 1812 New Orleans, behind the ramparts shooting a squirrel gun at one of my British or Irish ancestors.


Chatsworth, Calif: Do you beleive that today's America is the last best hope, or an America of an earlier time?

William J. Bennett: Was, is, and will be. In the story of history that is inhumanity and misery the American achievement is high and unique.


Saco, Maine: Thank you, Dr. Bennett, for this lively and interesting

discussion. Do you have any thoughts about why violent

crime, which had been dropping for so many years, has had

an upsurge across the country of late? Do you think, as

others have asserted, that the rate of violent crime is related

to the purity and availablity of meth?

William J. Bennett: Not sure. No doubt lots of reasons. We talked about on the show this morning and are going to take it up again. Please tune in and call in (1-866-680-6464 the call is on me)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Why are you not running for President? You would at the least add thoughtful debate and raise the level of discussions amongst the candidates.

William J. Bennett: There are plenty of good people out there. Start in your own backyard by supporting Rick Santorum and getting behind Lynn Swan. How about those republicans?- Lynn Swan, Michael Steele, and Kenneth Blackwell. Not to mention Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy, and Newt and alot of others. Brains, attractiveness, leadership, even some really cool guys.


William J. Bennett: Thank you everybody. If you have more questions, comments, additions, or criticisms please call me on my radio show. We have infinite time- 3 hours everyday Monday thru Friday 6 to 9 AM Eastern. Go to for more info. Lets keep the discussion going!

Thank you Washington Post.


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