Bennett's Latest Outrage
Dec 3, 1998 Michael Massing
William Bennett's The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals became an immediate bestseller. In
addition to outlining the case against Clinton, the book expresses Bennett's profound disappointment at the lack of public
revulsion over the President's behavior. After considering a number of possible explanations--good economic times, scandal
fatigue, aggressive White House spinmeisters--Bennett confides his real suspicion: "I cannot shake the thought that the widespread
loss of outrage against this president's misconduct tells us something fundamentally important about our condition. Our commitment
to long-standing American ideals has been enervated. We desperately need to recover them, and soon." Bennett goes on to state his
hope that Americans will soon "realize they are being played for fools by the president and his defenders. They will declare, with
confidence, that a lie is a lie, an oath is an oath, corruption is corruption. And truth matters."
Bennett's displeasure with the American public contrasts sharply with the sentiments he expressed in his 1992 book, The De-Valuing
of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children. There, he celebrated the wisdom and common sense of the American people,
which, he asserted, stood out against the destructive skepticism of the liberal elite. "The American people's sense of things is
in most instances right," he wrote; "the liberal elite's sense of things is in most instances wrong." Conservatives, Bennett
wrote, were much more in touch with popular sentiment: "While contemporary liberalism has moved away from--in some cases, even
against--the mainstream of American political life, today's conservatism is more at home with the common sense and the common
beliefs of the American people."
To back this up, Bennett cited the many trips into the hinterlands he had made as Secretary of Education and as drug czar. On
these swings, Bennett proudly noted in his earlier book, he met hundreds of ordinary Americans, and their views strongly seemed to
mirror his own. When, for instance, he publicly expressed support for the idea of beheading drug dealers, "many of the elites
ridiculed my opinion. But it resonated with the American people because they knew what drugs were doing, and they wanted a morally
proportionate response." Such differences contributed to Bennett's belief that the nation was engaged in a "culture war" pitting
the traditional values of middle-class Americans against the inbred negativism of journalists, lawyers and government officials.
"We need institutions that more accurately reflect the sentiments and beliefs of the great body of the American people," he wrote,
"rather than those of the cultural deconstructionists" and the "permanent political establishment in Washington."
In the current Clinton affair, however, the American people have stood up to that establishment. Over and over, polls have
documented their disgust with Kenneth Starr, Congress and the news media. Bennett is no longer celebrating them, however. On the
contrary, he now finds the American people lacking in wisdom and moral fiber. In the space of six years, Bennett has gone from
extolling the values of mainstream America to excoriating them.
What happened? On one level, Bennett's change raises questions about how much his earlier views truly were in sync with the
average American's. The "American people" he so regularly invokes in The De-Valuing of America (the phrase appears there more than
thirty times) was a vague, undifferentiated mass to which Bennett reflexively attributed views identical to his own. As evidence,
he cited little more than the comments people made to him at the highly scripted events he attended as a government official. Such
dog-and-pony shows are hardly the place to take the pulse of public opinion.
If, on the other hand, we accept Bennett's assertion that his views back then were more in line with those of mainstream America,
then his current sense of alienation suggests a profound shift in popular sentiment away from the narrow moral agenda favored by
Bennett and his allies on the right toward a broader and more tolerant view of human nature. If America has been gripped by a
culture war, as Bennett so strongly believes, then the public's lack of outrage over Monicagate would seem to indicate that his
side is now losing.