Midmorning on a blustery Wednesday and drug czar William Bennett is on his way from Washington, D.C., to L. A., where he will rip through nine stops in seven hours. Eager to sell a $10.6 billion antidrug package to the heartland, he is stumping with the vigor of a dark horse who senses that the vote could turn any minute. Even here, in the sedate first-class section of United Airlines Flight 199, he is talking up his take-no-prisoners drug policy. Kicking off his shoes and unhitching his tie, the rumpled Bennett tells a reporter, “I don’t have any objection to beheading drug dealers. Kingpins who sell to pregnant women, people who kill children—it’s morally deserved.”
This, of course, is the man who has proposed that small-time offenders be placed in military-style “boot camps”; that the government study dropping swarms of coca-hungry caterpillars in the Peruvian jungles; that the Pentagon be given $1.2 billion to roll out a military operation against smugglers and suppliers. Since volunteering for the post of drug-policy coordinator last year, Bennett has proved himself a sound-bite artist extraordinaire. A Ph.D. in philosophy who believes in seizing the rhetorical offensive, Bennett, 46, has little use for prudence. As he sees it, he is a field commander in the war of good versus evil, and heavy artillery is needed. “Hell, I guess it’s part of my notion of doing things,” he says. “If you’re going to do it, do it all the way.”
The stir begins the moment Bennett sets foot in Los Angeles. With the two federal marshals who serve as his bodyguards, he is swept away by LAPD helicopter to a breakneck round of events: lunch with Police Chief Daryl Gates, a briefing with the local drug task force, followed by a visit to Jefferson High in drug-infested south central Los Angeles—a blue-collar Hispanic community that was the scene of 37 drive-by shootings and 112 violent assaults last year. Police helicopters hover overhead, and mounted police surround the school as Bennett’s motorcade arrives. Inside, he meets briefly with teachers, parents and students about the drug gangs who have frightened kids away from classes. Then he emerges to face the minicams and declare, “If we give a damn about these kids, they’ll give a damn and go [back] to school.”
Then it’s on to a walking tour through the neighborhood. L.A. has been designated a “high-intensity drug-trafficking area,” and this area has been cordoned off by the LAPD with road blocks that State NARCOTICS ENFORCEMENT AREA: OPEN TO RESIDENTS ONLY. It is a bold—if controversial—move, and one that Bennett applauds. “Progress is being made here,” he says of L.A., one of five areas nationwide targeted by his office as a priority battle zone in the war on drugs and slated to share $50 million in federal aid.
Of course, Washington, D.C., was also targeted by Bennett as a special case last year, with few discernible results to date. In fact, a recent Senate report asserts that cocaine use nationwide is twice as high as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which last February declared that casual cocaine use may have crested. On the basis of that report, Bennett told Congress, “Momentum is shifting our way,” even as drug experts scoffed at his naïveté. “The typical user is quite poor and less likely to be caught by one of these household surveys,” argues Harvard public policy lecturer Mark Kleiman, who supervised the Senate study. “Years ago people didn’t feel embarrassed about drug use, because it was identified with the wealthy in crowd. Today people are worried about losing their jobs…. How many people are lying?” He and his colleagues claim: quite a few.
Bennett always knew the drug assignment would be tough. Says his friend, former White House aide Lyn Nofziger: “If Bill had asked me about the job, I would have told him not to do it. It’s a no-win proposition. Basically, it’s a bully pulpit and not much more. But Bill is a doer—he likes to get out and take a public stand.” And so he has, despite the fact that he has no direct authority over agencies responsible for stemming drug trafficking—Customs, the FBI, the DEA—no shock troops of his own and no slot on Bush’s Cabinet. (At one point, Bennett reportedly engaged in an obscenity-laced shouting match with OMB Director Dick Darman over funding for his office.) Rather, Bennett is a kind of free radical with a mandate to coordinate the Administration’s antidrug effort, and he makes up the rules as he goes along. “This is not an impossible job, if I define the job the right way,” he says. “Am I single-handedly going to get America off drugs? Of course not. Can I coordinate the federal effort? Sure. But unlike Education [he held that Cabinet post under Reagan], I’ve really got to be less a quarterback and more a tackle for the President.”
“To understand Bennett, you’ve got to understand football,” says longtime friend Sam Brunelli, a hulking Denver Bronco alumnus who plays on a ragtag weekend team quarterbacked by the drug czar. “He believes in being on the offense—you either have the ball or you don’t.” But you also have to understand Bennett was that rare member of his high school football team who loved books and debating. He has always been an unusual hybrid—a scholar with a competitive edge.
The second son of banker F. Robert Bennett and his wife, Nancy—middle-class Catholics who lived in Brooklyn-Bill Bennett was well-mannered and inconspicuous as a child. A voracious reader, he plowed through a physics text by the time he was 10. “Bill was always in love with ideas,” says brother Robert, 50, a prominent D.C. lawyer. “When he wanted to have a pet snake, he became an expert on snakes. He would master things.”
When Bill was 5, his parents divorced and Robert became “my protector,” he recalls. “But he was very polite, too. A friend of his beat me up on the playground once. Bob went over and rang the doorbell. He said, ‘Hello, Mrs. Sherman, is George home?’ George came to the door, and Bob popped him.”
In 1957 Nancy, a medical secretary, moved the boys to Washington, D.C. She married Michael Walsh, an engineer. Bill was sent to the Jesuits at rigorous Gonzaga High, where he managed to shine both as a varsity tackle and a member of the literary discussion group. After a back injury sidelined him at Williams College, he played in a rock band called Plato and the Guardians, worked on the college humor magazine and joined the rambunctious Kappa Alphas. Although it was the dawning of the peace-love-dope epoch, Bennett says that he has never tried marijuana. “Some will tell you I was fairly hard-nosed about it,” he says. Bennett did, however, toy with the idea of joining the left-wing SDS; his brother talked him out of it. After graduating with honors in 1965, Bennett worked toward his Ph.D. at the University of Texas. It was there that friends set him up with a singer named Janis Joplin. Although their blind date was uneventful, it became a kind of historical footnote. “That date lasted two hours, and I’ve spent 200 hours talking about it,” he confesses.
In 1971 Bennett enrolled in Harvard Law School. But after earning his law degree, he taught philosophy at Boston University, where he was a popular instructor who encouraged freewheeling debate. By 1979, however, he was disillusioned by “the percentage of knaves and fools in higher education” and took a job at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. That’s when friends fixed him up with Elayne Glover, a child-development specialist from Charlotte. They married in 1982, shortly after Bennett—a registered Democrat who switched parties to vote for Ronald Reagan—was tapped as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In 1985 Bennett, by now an outspoken critic of the academic establishment, became Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education. He lost no time making provocative pronouncements. Bennett blamed poor leaching for the shortcomings of the education system and branded the National Education Association “the greatest single obstacle to education reform.” Toeing the Reagan line, he endorsed education vouchers for private schools, the option of prayer in the classroom and reduced federal support for schools. He also pioneered his hands-on style, dropping in on schools across the country to guest-teach social studies and drawing up a recommended reading list for elementary students. Bennett’s approach guaranteed good copy—and bad feelings. “Bill was polarizing the academic community,” says Joseph Duffey, president of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a former head of NEH. “He stirred up things, but he also set back the struggle to really understand the problems of building a first-rate education system.”
Meanwhile, the Bennetts kept to themselves, avoiding the Washington social circuit. “I married my wife because I like to be with her. I like to sit with her,” he says. “I remember going to the National Gallery of Art, and they sat Elayne next to this young, good-looking news guy and me a hundred yards away next to some pretty model—then they wonder why there are so many divorces.” At their comfortable rented house in Chevy Chase, Md., where they live with sons John, 6, and Joseph, 1, the Bennetts sometimes throw rock and roll dance parties for their friends. Privacy is in short supply: Federal marshals stand guard 24 hours a day because Bennett has received death threats. “It does disrupt your life,” he says. “I’m out there coaching my son’s soccer team, with 300 little kids running around in their T-shirts, and there are four guys talking into their sleeves.”
“It’s a deadly serious job,” says Elayne, 40. A convert to Catholicism, she directs a counseling project for teenage girls at the Georgetown University Hospital Child Development Center. “In the wee hours of the morning, I worry about it.”
Yet when the drug job came up, Bennett didn’t hesitate to offer his services to George Bush, putting aside a book he’s writing about his Reagan years and a lucrative $15,000-a-pop lecture schedule. “Hell,” he says, “it’s the issue of the day. It’s America’s No. 1 worry. As Secretary of Education, I kept running into this damn thing.” By all accounts, Bush is pleased to have a bulldog on the case. The two confer at least twice a month, and Bush has been known to take Bennett’s side in disagreements with Cabinet members.
Critics on Capitol Hill complain that Bennett is taking a photo-op approach to the drug problem, and they question his “supply-side” bias, which emphasizes law enforcement and tough sentences for dealers over drug treatment and education programs. Yet even his opponents allow that Bennett packs a considerable amount of intellectual firepower. “He’s smart as hell and committed to doing something about the drug problem,” says Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, who is often at odds with him. “He [plays] straight—he never gets back to me with something that’s not true.”
Some Bennett watchers wonder how long he can tolerate the frustrations built into the job. “I think it will be difficult for him to last much longer,” says Rep. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.). “He obviously feels we must fight a war, and the powers around him are only allowing him to fire a slingshot.” But for now, Bennett seems to relish his role as high-profile gadfly. “What’s the gamble? What’s the loss?” he says. “I tried. I took a hard job. Live well and die with honor…. If you take a job, shut up and don’t complain.”