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Cowboy in the Capital: Drug Czar Bill Bennett

The first director of the National Drug Control Policy claims the crack-filled streets

Drug Czar, William Bennett

Drug Czar William Bennett speaks in Washington, DC. on June 14th, 1990.

Cynthia Johnson/Liaison/Getty Images

The war is just around the corner from the office of William Bennett.Wander over to nearby 14th Street, and you will be on the most notorious dead end strip in the nation’s capital. Stores are boarded up. Winos sprawl on stoops. At rush hour the street corners are crowded with flashily dressed men and women looking for customers. What’s selling best these days, even for the hookers, is crack.

The placement of Bennett, the country’s first drug czar, in a rented suite above a drugstore was one of several humiliations visited on him early in the Bush administration. But when I saw him there this summer, he was making the most of it, practically reveling in being at the drug war’s front lines–20 long blocks from the power center of Washington. “It’s better to be out here,” said Bennett. “It’s closer to the real world.”

Watching the 46-year-old Bennett walk around the 14th Street corridor, you can sense the adrenalin pumping. Back in March, three days after being sworn in as the director of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, he declared that these streets would one day belong to him. This city, which then had a homicide rate seven times the national average, was going to be the top priority of Bennett’s war against illegal drugs.

Drug wars are nothing new. Every administration since John Kennedy’s has declared one. But by and large, every previous war has been a loser. President Bush, legally required by the Democratic Congress to appoint a drug czar this year, quickly discovered that few politicians wanted the job. Bennett, the former secretary of education, was a notable exception.

On the Monday before last Christmas, he phoned Bush to volunteer. With some reluctance, since the two men are more rivals than friends, Bush appointed him–a gesture to right-wing forces in the Republican party. It is no secret that Bennett, who is both too aggressive and too rumpled for Bush’s button-down administration, wants to be president himself one day. His staff even sent me a clipping of a Time article alluding to his yearning for the White House upon which someone had scribbled, “Go for it!”

Bennett is sometimes likened to Theodore Roosevelt, who started out as the New York City Police Commissioner, and to such give-’em-hell generals as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur.

But when we spoke, Bennett invoked mythical figures created in Hollywood. Comparing the role of taking back the streets from crack dealers to “an old western with Henry Fonda, or Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter,” he repeated over and over his theory that in the drug war there are only “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Indeed, at the heart of Bennett’s anti-drug plan–submitted to Congress last month and soon to become law–are two axioms straight from the world of movie cowboys: one, that the bad guys are easily identified, and two, that tough words and actions will scare them away. Identifying the bad guys has proved to be easy for Bennett.

By his definition, the most expansive since Prohibition, the bad guys are tens of millions of Americans–not only those who smuggle drugs and distribute them across the country but also those who use illegal substances of any kind and even those of us who look the other way.

Whereas past government policies were aimed, albeit ineffectually, at the higher echelons of drug criminals, Bennett’s war will aim lower and wider. “To have a chance to take action and not to take it makes you morally complicit,” he told me, and later, referring to High Plains Drifter, he added, “The whole town hides in cowardice and is finished.”

If Bennett is to be Eastwood, he would like each of us to be the dwarf who becomes Eastwood’s sidekick. On visits to junior high schools, Bennett advises students to turn in drug users to school authorities. Last month, after extensive media coverage of Bennett’s plan, a nine-year-old boy in Buffalo informed on his marijuana-selling, cocaine-using mother, who was promptly arrested. In big-city crack neighborhoods, Bennett urges law-abiding citizens to patrol the streets. “Fight back!” he says.

Everywhere in America, he wants friends of casual users to ostracize them. “The white middle-class user needs to be coerced, needs to be told that his behavior won’t be tolerated,” he says. Suppose a teenager is selling drugs: “You know the old concept about a baseball through a window,” says Bennett “The parents can be held responsible and liable.”

Young professionals cruising the streets for drugs? Bennett would confiscate their cars, revoke their drivers’ licenses and have their photographs published in newspapers. If caught a second time, they would be sentenced to a year in boot camp. “Let’s have early-retiring military people run these things,” says Bennett “Because this is really character building we’re talking about.”

This summer Bennett was struck by an advertisement in the New York Times that said, “Know an addict? Be tough on him!” It was just the slogan Bennett had been searching for. “Don’t think this person needs pity and compassion,” he says. “This person needs you to say he’s fired or you’re going to divorce him or whatever.” In homes where children or fetuses are getting inadequate care, he would have fathers, mothers or pregnant women committed to institutions by civil process.

The concept of a morality based on retaliation has great appeal for Bennett, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas. “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you,” he says, quoting Flannery O’Connor. “This stuff is pushing hard against us and we have to push back hard.”

Asked recently by a caller on the Larry King show on CNN about the idea of executing street dealers by the Saudi Arabian method of a sword to the neck, Bennett replied, “Morally, I don’t have a problem with it.” When King, incredulous, interrupted, Bennett said, “It’s not a moral problem. I used to teach ethics.”

***

Much of Bennett’s career has embodied the message that it will take a few tough men to end the moral decline of America. Prior to coming to Washington with the Reagan administration in 1981, Bennett was primarily known for his one-man stands against college students.

At Harvard in 1970 he was a teaching fellow and a dormitory proctor when he caught two undergraduates down the hall selling marijuana. Disgusted when Harvard administrators chose to forgive, he left for Boston University to be an Associate Dean and then assistant to university president John Silber, a well-known neoconservative educator who liked Bennett’s belligerent style.

At BU, Bennett became the designated escort of military recruiters on campus. Student protestors were no match for the six-foot-two-inch, 220-pound Bennett, who had played on the offensive line for the Williams College football team and who had earned the nickname Ram for successfully using his head to batter down a door that a coed had locked to keep him out.

Bennett loved to bust through those BU picket lines–even on days when there were no recruiters to escort. “He wanted to prove he was stronger than us,” remembers one BU student from the Bennett era.

It was the Bill Bennett show, and the man himself brings a certain zest to memories of those years in the early Seventies. “I realized I was fighting a sort of battle of cultures,” he says. “It was real cultural gang warfare.”

The ideal America, in Bennett’s vision, is a simple, old-fashioned place where all boys play contact sports, all girls exist to be chased after and all great authors are dead (as education secretary, he was bluntly outspoken about a return to the classics). In Washington, Bennett continues to play football in a regular Sunday-morning game (it is impossible to imagine Bennett pitching horseshoes).

He ignores the Washington social scene, which puts him severely out of step in this era of partying presidents. In 1986, when George Bush invited him to the vice-presidential mansion to watch the election returns, Bennett blew him off, preferring to hang out instead with a six-pack in front of his brother’s TV set.

While the careers of some modern crusaders have foundered on the shoals of hypocrisy, Bennett appears to live the life he preaches. He goes home after work to his wife and two sons in a modest, blue-collar suburb (whose identity I was asked not to reveal after Bennett was put on the Medellín cartel’s death list). Had he remained out of government after the Reagan years, his name and ideas would have earned him Kissinger-esque fees on the lecture circuit–as much as $1.5 million a year, according to his agent. But he would rather be drug czar, with its $99,500-a-year salary.

Still, Bennett is not quite as strait-laced as you might expect. For one thing, he once had a blind date with Janis Joplin, if only a few beers at a party barn outside Austin, Texas, in 1967; for another, he once played guitar in a rock band, Plato and the Guardians. His copy of Rolling Stone‘s Top 100 Singles Issue is worn from use.

To this day, he admits to a small anomaly in his hard-line philosophy. “My wife has an aversion to the Rolling Stones, because she associates them with drug excesses,” he says. “But I think the Stones are so damned good I allow for them. Maybe I look the other way.”

Last year his conservative friends decided Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was heroic philosophy, but Bennett says, “I hated that prissy crap where he’s anti-rock & roll.”

How Bennett became a crusader against illegal drugs is hard to explain. The death of Joplin from a heroin overdose affected him, and at Harvard he was distressed that the marijuana users in his dorm seemed to be always lying around watching soap operas: “I said, ‘Come over to my party. We’re having freshman girls from Wellesley and rock & roll, and you’ll see this is more fun than doping out and watching TV.’ But no!” Bennett concluded that marijuana caused softness and softheadedness, which grated on his macho instincts.

By the mid-Eighties, Bennett was using the issue of illegal drugs to make his own political mark. It had become a big issue–almost as big as the global threat of communism once was. “Drugs are the enemy within,” he says now in his speeches.

***

Early in August a debate raged at the White House, with Bennett on one side and a number of top presidential advisers on the other. At issue was the nationally telecast speech that George Bush ultimately delivered September 5th to announce Bennett’s drug plan.

Over the summer, Secretary of State James Baker and Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, among other advisers, were urging Bush to forgo the speech. Bennett had angered Thornburgh last winter by not consulting him before Bennett blurted out at a news conference that he would send a special narcotics team onto the streets of Washington, and he had alienated Baker with comments threatening to cancel aid programs to Latin American countries unwilling to crack down on drug trafficking.

Bennett had never had good relations with Bush, either. Last year, while in the Reagan cabinet, Bennett went public with complaints about the lackluster effort being made against the international drug lords–criticism that irritated Bush, who as vice-president headed the South Florida Drug Task Force, whose mandate was to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.

I happened to see Bennett in July just as he was about to make his first visit to the presidential retreat at Camp David. His secretary was on the phone to the White House. “No, I don’t know if he was invited to go in the president’s helicopter,” she said. There was a pause. “Okay, then the marshals will drive him. That’s fine.” A slight, to be sure, but trifling compared with the series of restrictions that Bush had imposed on Bennett–no cabinet rank, no position on the National Security Council, an office far removed from the hub of official Washington. These conditions were clearly meant to keep Bennett in his place and initially led him, according to friends, to consider resigning.

Instead, as Bennett would say, he decided to fight back. At White House meetings, which he calls “knock-head sessions,” he got his chance to assert power. “This is straightforward,” he says. “As James Madison said, the interests of one branch of government or one department all have to fit into a national strategy.”

When Thornburgh objected in March to the proposed special narcotics team for Washington, according to a Justice Department source, “Bennett went to the White House and said, ‘If you guys want to screw around and lose the drug war, fine, you can have my resignation, and you can explain it to the American people.’ ” Not long afterward, Thornburgh, looking chagrined, appeared side by side with Bennett to tell reporters that the special team was a great idea after all.

Bennett also succeeded in getting Bush to expand the role of the U.S. military in the drug war, which Reagan had resisted doing. Bennett once wrote a memo urging that American troops “do to major drug traffickers what our forces in the Persian Gulf did to Iran’s navy.” Another time, Bennett had advocated airborne attacks on cocaine labs in the Andean jungles. When rebuked by a State Department official (“We can’t send in helicopters with a big U.S.A. painted on them”), he shot back, “Then paint the hammer and sickle on them.”

Only last year such stories were circulated to illustrate how out of touch Bennett was. His ideas were opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leadership of both parties in Congress, as well as Reagan’s inner circle. Nonetheless, this summer Bennett began drafting a secret strategy, in consultation with like-minded allies within the National Security Council, to send American commando units into Latin American countries to capture drug lords and bring them back to the United States for trial.

The operation, according to an NSC insider, was given the name Dead or Alive. Bush’s secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, along with Baker and senior military officers, tried to derail the operation. But in late August, following an escalation of violence in Colombia and the courageous response of that country’s government, Bennett went on the offensive. The president subsequently signed a classified directive–a first step toward implementing Dead or Alive.

The directive permits American soldiers to accompany local military patrols in regions of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru where the drug lords are based. “Bennett,” a friend of his told me, “made it clear that Bush better take some action, or everyone suddenly would start remembering the W word. Wimpo!”

By September, with drug-related violence growing in Colombia and in major American cities, it was politically impossible for Bush to do anything but go forward with the drug-war speech.

***

Bennett’s overall plan contains a number of points that alarm civil libertarians–institutionalizing parents and pregnant women, for instance, or evicting, tenants from public housing based only on a suspicion of drug use. But in the present political atmosphere, most Democrats in Congress are eager to associate themselves with Bennett’s “Go ahead, make my day” style.

In appropriating money for the plan, the Democrats are trying to add about $1 billion to Bennett’s $8 billion budget. And while most of the increase will go for treatment and education, the proposed revisions leave undisturbed Bennett’s approach.

Senator Joseph Biden of Maryland, who was chosen by fellow Democrats to present a critique of the Bennett plan, said on the McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, “I’m in favor of everything he wants for law enforcement, except I’d do more.”

Earlier this summer one Democratic critic, Senator John Glenn of Ohio, discovered firsthand what can happen when Bennett feels he’s being crossed. Glenn, who thinks Bennett should be more low profile, had asked him to testify before the Senate Governmental Operations Committee. Bennett replied with a series of delays and excuses, and the military brass beneath Glenn’s mild manner began to show. He threatened to charge Bennett with contempt of Congress if he didn’t show up to testify.

Contempt is pretty much the word that describes Bennett’s feelings about Congress. “Real czars don’t testify,” he told me, not exactly joking. “Real czars don’t have their plans or budgets reviewed.”

Late in June, Bennett and Glenn met for a private talk. For several minutes, Glenn lectured Bennett about maintaining good relations with Congress, if only for the sake of his budget. “Senator, you are telling me that you are going to keep hostage the money for the drug war in D.C. until you get my testimony,” said Bennett, according to a staff member privy to the meeting.

Glenn realized he was trapped in an untenable position. Targeting the District of Columbia for drug-war money is immensely popular on Capitol Hill, where everyone is embarrassed about the expanding reputation of the nation’s capital as Murder City, U.S.A. “I am not keeping the D.C. money hostage,” Glenn said to Bennett. “Because if you are, I’ll have to reconsider my whole plan of targeting D.C.,” said Bennett. “And I’ll have to explain publicly why I’m reconsidering.”

Bennett stood up to leave. “Sit down, Mr. Bennett,” Glenn commanded. Bennett sat down, but he had made his point. Glenn has since ceased to issue any more threats about forcing the drug czar to testify.

***

As the Bennett mystique grows, some conservative Democrats are even spinning a scenario in which Bennett, a registered Democrat until Reagan brought him into his cabinet, is lured back to the party to make a run for the White House. This represents a remarkable turnaround from the beginning of the year, when the conventional wisdom inside the Beltway was that Bennett had taken on a no-win job.

I must confess I thought he had, too, until a veteran congressional staffer set me straight: “For Bush there’s a lot to lose and little to gain, because if the situation continues to deteriorate, he’ll get the blame. But if the drug war is a success, Bennett stands to get most of the credit.”

To a remarkable degree, Bennett has guaranteed that his war will be a success or, at least, that it will be perceived as a success–which, in our political language, is the same thing. By defining so many ordinary Americans as bad guys, he can with the same ease someday redefine us as good guys. All we have to do is act the part–which we have already started to do.

According to recent studies, the casual use of illegal drugs among Americans has already declined more than 30 percent in the past four years, and there is reason to believe the trend will continue. As for the poor neighborhoods in big cities, where the drug epidemic is spreading, Bennett is compiling a list of citizens’ groups that are heeding his advice to fight back. “We have one staff person here who is doing nothing but collecting success stories,” he said.

In all likelihood, we will begin to see those kinds of stories on the front pages and on the evening newscasts in about six months. We can also expect to see stories about Bennett’s special narcotics team as it hits the streets of Washington this winter. There is not a word in Bennett’s plan, of course, that addresses the tangle of poverty and hopelessness in the communities where crack is most often sold.

“In this job, you don’t want a social philosopher,” Bennett told Congressman Charles Rangel, who, as the chairman of the House narcotics committee, had asked what Bennett was doing to eliminate the underlying conditions of drug abuse. “You want someone taking on the battle, coordinating the troops.”

Just recently, I saw Bennett again on the street outside his office. He was walking fast, with flanking bodyguards, and he didn’t see, or didn’t seem to see, a limousine pull around the corner and stop. Two young men got out. They were dressed in black with gold chains, and they wore hats puffed with feathers. They were maybe 15.

In This Article: Coverwall, Politics, War on Drugs

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