After a combative tenure as the Bush administration's "drug czar," William J. Bennett has told associates he will resign his position in the next few days and assert that he has put into place a federal strategy that is curbing the nation's drug problems, according to knowledgeable sources.
Bennett's resignation as the first director of national drug control policy was scheduled to be announced at a White House ceremony in the next few days, sources said last night. Bennett, 47, does not have another job lined up. Administration officials said no replacement has been selected.
A spokesman said Bennett was unavailable for comment last night.
Bennett is resigning at a crucial juncture in the drug war, with signs of continued declines in middle class "casual" use coinciding with sharp increases in homicides and gun-related violence in cities across the country -- a development that has been spurred to a large degree by the virulence of the traffic in crack cocaine. In the District, which Bennett last year pledged to make a "test case" in the drug war after charging that the city's murder rate was "out of control," homicides are running above last year's record levels.
In keeping with his record as secretary of education in the Reagan administration, Bennett used the newly created anti-drug post as a "bully pulpit" to attack liberal intellectuals, academics, journalists and others who he argued were too tolerant of drug use or favored legalization, which he described as a "morally scandalous" position.
Bennett also developed what administration officials hailed as the first "comprehensive" federal drug strategy, a blueprint that called for sharp spending increases in the anti-drug effort. But critics charged that the strategy relied too much on traditional law enforcement and interdiction efforts and gave too little weight to treatment and education.
Sources said Bush and Bennett will contend that overall trends in the drug war are running in the right direction, citing Drug Enforcement Administration figures showing that wholesale cocaine prices have increased over the past year and that the drug is now more difficult to find on the streets of some U.S. cities. But while contending his efforts are showing some results, Bennett is expected to deliver a strong plea for continued funding for anti-drug programs, particularly in the area of treatment and prevention, sources said.
Although he had originally asked Bush to name him to the newly created anti-drug post and appeared to relish the attention during his first year on the job, Bennett has appeared bored and restless in recent months as the drug issue faded from the front pages, according to sources. The day-to-day details of managing the anti-drug effort held little interest for him and Bennett has spent much of the past two months on the campaign trail on behalf of Republican candidates, sources said.
Among those within the administration who have expressed a strong interest in succeeding Bennett is former D.C. Superior Court judge Reggie Walton, who now serves under Bennett as the associate drug control director for state and local affairs. Reached last night, Walton said: "I have no idea what the future holds. . . . It's up to the president to decide what he wants me to do."
Other administration officials said it was too early to speculate about a successor.
Bennett's job was created under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and gives him the authority to oversee and coordinate the actions of more than 30 federal agencies involving in fighting drugs. Although the law said the job should be Cabinet-level, Bush decided before he was sworn in that Bennett would not be a member of the Cabinet, prompting critics to charge that the new anti-drug post had been downgraded by the administration.
Bennett moved quickly to assert himself, however, announcing a multiagency initiative to curb drug violence in the District on the day he was sworn into the job, March 13, 1989. On the next day, Bennett announced that he had persuaded the Bush administration to freeze imports of foreign-made assault rifles that had become the weapons of choice in the drug trade -- a move that brought him sharp criticism from the National Rifle Assocation.