Bennett's blunders

November 08, 1990

William Bennett resigns today as the nation's drug czar -- and say, good riddance. Bennett was a dubious choice for the office from the start. As secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, he became something of a roving campus bully -- a background which hardly prepared him for the job of fashioning the first comprehensive federal anti-drug strategy. The national commitment to tackle drug abuse was immediately diminished, in the public view, by an appointment that seemed a hollow political maneuver and by the fact that President Bush then declined to make Bennett be a member of his Cabinet.

Bennett, aware at the outset of his reputation as an aggressive partisan, promised to make the position non-political and result-oriented. But he was either unable or unwilling to keep that promise. Instead, he repeatedly used his post as a bully pulpit to attack liberal intellectuals and academics who he charged were too tolerant of drug use or favored legalization, and in recent weeks he even hit the campaign trail to stump, in his official position, for GOP candidates. The position of chief drug enforcement officer ought to be kept as non-partisan as attorney general or secretary of state.

In his position, Bennett pursued a drug-fighting strategy that relied heavily on traditional law enforcement and interdiction efforts, while giving short shrift to treatment and education. He now claims success, pointing to the decline in middle-class "casual" drug use and DEA figures showing cocaine prices have increased and the drug is more difficult to get. But in reality, the decrease in middle-class drug use had begun before Bennett took office in 1989. And though some drugs may indeed be harder to find, there also has been a dramatic increase in drug-related violence in cities across the country -- perhaps for precisely that reason. Moreover, Bennett neglects to point out that the more insidious drug, crack, is still widely available and less expensive than cocaine.

All told, Bennett's tenure has been a bust. His resignation gives the president a chance to inject some creativity and commitment into a post whose mission and effectiveness so far have been pretty dim.

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