Before his national radio show and best-selling books, before his stints as federal drug czar and education secretary, William J. Bennett was just a smart guy from Brooklyn.
And yet despite all of his professional accomplishments, Bennett has built a career based less on his formidable resume than on the image he has crafted as a moral stalwart – the very image that lands him in such difficulty whenever those morals appear to waver.
“If you look back to the 1990s and the so-called culture wars taking place, you’ll see that people were hungry for some kind of moral orientation. His voice emerged at that time, and a certain segment of society listened to him,” said Robert Schmuhl, director of the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. “Of course, whenever someone pontificates on moral virtues, their subsequent utterances are held to a higher standard.”
Perhaps his first brush with notoriety was a blind date Bennett had with Janis Joplin while he was in graduate school in Texas. The renowned hippie Joplin and the famously Republican Bennett reportedly got along fine.
But Bennett, 62, gained true prominence as an author and conservative commentator who was among the first to bring debates over moral values into the nation’s political dialogue. He is the author of successful books such as The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories and The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals.
Controversy has followed him ever since, whenever he seemed to stray from those virtues. One such instance was a 1989 appearance on Larry King Live when he responded to a caller’s suggestion that drug dealers should be beheaded by saying, “Morally, I don’t have any problem with that at all.”
Reports surfaced in 2003 that Bennett, a devout Catholic, was also a devoted gambler who lost millions at Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos. He compared his gambling to responsible drinking and has since sworn off the habit.
The revelation elicited much rejoicing from Bennett’s critics, many of whom relished the apparent hypocrisy. Washington Monthly, playing on the title of Bennett’s most popular book, called him “The Bookie of Virtue.”
Still, Bennett is host of a syndicated radio show, Morning in America, that reaches 115 stations and more than 1.25 million listeners, according to Salem Radio Network, which distributes the program. In Baltimore it airs on WITH-AM.