Bennett's pursuit of virtue

June 27, 1994|By Andrew Ferguson

INTO A world in which a modern parent shepherds tots through MTV, Sharon Stone, 2 Live Crew and X-Men comic books comes the imposing figure of William J. Bennett.

Under one arm is his best-seller, "The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories."

It is a new and unexpected stage in the public life of the former drug czar and secretary of education.

For the moment he has shrugged off his partisan belligerence. In his current incarnation he transcends politics.

He aims instead to provide a moral compass to parents buffeted by the winds of societal decay, to help us rediscover the old truths, to return us to our moral roots.

And if he happens to be elected president along the way, well, that's fine too.

Almost a million copies of the book are in print. It has been on the New York Times' best-seller list for 19 weeks.

"The Book of Virtues" is being bought, and maybe read, by liberal parents as well as conservative, by secular humanists and evangelical Protestants alike.

In the magazines and newspapers it has spawned dozens of op-eds and trend stories, heralding a hunger for meaning in the '90s.

Bennett, not surprisingly, agrees.

"The values thing is exploding in this country," he says.

"I think we're at the edge of a major cultural seismic shift. The states are passing laws very similar to the kind that were passed in the 19th century, to promote morality and the development of educational and moral faculties, the development of virtue, to foster in the young an awareness of concepts like self-discipline and responsibility -- what we call good character. Something's going on out there and the book reflects that."

"The Book of Virtues" is an unlikely best-seller, falling outside the categories of movie-star tell-alls, New Age self-help guides and implausible financial advice that dominate the nonfiction lists.

It offers instead a collection of poems, myths, fables, short stories and philosophical extracts, very few of a vintage more recent than the 1930s.

"I told my publisher I wanted to do a 'McGuffey's Reader' for the '90s," Bennett says, "and that's what I did."

The irony is that for at least a generation, those readers have been little more than curiosities sold in museum gift shops and by mail order as a cultural artifact.

Bennett, the father of two boys, ages 5 and 10, had had enough of today's children's books that read as if they were cobbled together in the labs of a graduate school of education. Lots of parents apparently agree.

Most seem to be newly reactionary baby boomers, terrified that a libertine pop culture will disfigure their cute little Ashleys and Colins into 21st-century Charles Mansons or, worse, Roseanne Arnolds.

Like its McGuffey prototype, "The Book of Virtues" is suffused with an austere, uncompromising moralism. The illustrations, most of them Victorian pen-and-inks, are small and spare.

Each virtue gets a chapter of its own -- "Self-Discipline," "Courage," "Work," "Friendship," "Compassion" and so on -- introduced by an erudite headnote explaining its practical application.

And above most selections are a few lines that distill the moral of the story into a sound bite, for example:

* "We must practice bracing ourselves for all of life's contingencies."

* "Others may try to feed our ego, but it is up to us to constrain it."

* "Of all the vices, lust is the one many people seem to find the most difficult to control."

All of these are pleasantly, even reassuringly, old-fashioned.

For children and parents lullabied by the banality of contemporary children's books, the cold-blooded resoluteness of many of Bennett's selections will come as a jolt.

For example, Hilaire Belloc's "Rebecca," who enjoyed the "furious sport" of slamming doors. "She was not really bad at heart, but only rude and wild." She gets brained by a marble bust jogged loose by her incessant slamming.

Then there's Jim, who won't mind his nanny, so a lion eats him.

Some reviewers have suggested that Bennett's Victorian version of uplift -- hyperjudgmentalism, you could call it -- might be off-putting to tots of the Barney generation.

But Bennett disagrees: You should see my mail -- parents telling me their kids are saying, 'C'mon, bring down the big book.' This book is very personal. It's the place where parents live with their children, it's the center, it's where the action is."

The book, Bennett says, "was a labor of love," with roots in magazine pieces he did in the late 1970s, before President Reagan selected him to head the National Endowment for the Humanities and set him up in public life.

Later, he served as Reagan's secretary of education, then drug czar -- director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy -- in the Bush administration.

He has been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate.

However, Bennett says he is loath to turn the book into a political instrument -- "It's bigger than politics" -- but he believes there is nevertheless something politicians can learn from it.

"This book is about responsibility," he says. "This book is about character. It's about taking charge of your own life. And if there's a message official Washington needs to hear more than any other, it's that this is a self-governing society, and a self-governing society requires what the founders would call virtue.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine, from which this article is adapted.

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