A conversation with Bill Bennett

In the latest of his Conversations, Bill Kristol draws out the eminent Bill Bennett on key moments in his distinguished career. Bill Bennett is a man who needs no introduction to Power Line readers. I will say only that this is great stuff.

The interview is posted here, where it is broken into chapters. (It is also available in transcript or podcast form at the link.) My guess is you’ll want to watch the whole thing (below).

Quotable quote: “If I could spend full-time and make a living at it, I would work to improve the teaching of American history and civics in the schools. You know, we talk about our math and science, but [our worst subject] is knowledge of America. . . . The [American story] is unmatched. It’s a tapestry, it’s Joseph’s coat, it’s amazing. And it turns out to be a country, you know, where for an awful lot of people, dreams actually do come true.”

One more: “If you live in some poor . . . part of the world where some dictator has his boot on your throat, and you see a group of men coming over a hill toward you and they’re carrying a flag, your prayer is that it’s the American flag because they’re there to help you.”

And right around 18:30, we have a story from Bennett’s service in the Reagan administration that I have heard Bill tell in person but am so glad to have on video:

[E]arly on, the real formative experience for me, the one that ties me to Ronald Reagan forever is I was kind of speaking my mind. You will remember this; you were helping me. It was said once of Bill Bennett, Secretary, and Chief of Staff Bill Kristol, “The problem with that place,” said a journalist, “is they have no brakes, it’s all accelerator, everybody’s just pressing on the accelerator.” And so I was saying some very critical things about education, about teachers’ unions, about performance, about tenure. And there was a move to get rid of me, and I got a lot of bad press. The President came into Cabinet meetings, carrying three folders, one of them said “Bennett.” And he opens up the folder –

KRISTOL: So you’re all sitting around the Cabinet table, and the aides are at the back of the room.

BENNETT: Right, and the President starts reading these headlines – Bennett must go, Bennett is the James Watt of the second terms. James Watt was the guy who created quite a fuss on a lot of fronts and ended up going.

KRISTOL: So the President is reading these headlines while you’re sitting right there as the kind of relatively new Education Secretary.

BENNETT: Right, and the chairs are drawing away.

KRISTOL: The Secretary of State is right there and Secretary of Defense.

BENNETT: George Shultz, Casper Weinberger. Chairs are pulling away. And I said, “Man, I have blown it.” You know. The President put the – closes it and said, “Well, that’s what Bill Bennett is doing to shake things up. What’s wrong with the rest of you?” Wow. Yeah, wow. You know, he put his arm, figuratively put his arm around me and said, “Stay at it.” So, boy, I stayed at it.

As I say, this is great stuff.

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