Virtue has become a growth industry, thanks to Bill Bennett and marketing

November 21, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

Just in time for holiday gift-giving: William J. Bennett's complete collection of virtues.

Packaged and repackaged, illustrated and annotated, Bennett's favorite fables, Bible stories and myths are perfect for any member of your family who might be uncertain about what is right or wrong, just or unjust.

First, the original: "The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories." Published in 1993, it is the foundation of conscience every family needs, delivered in 800 bites that can be read at bedtime for years to come. Literally.

Sensitive to the demands of his audience ("No pictures? This is boring," said children all across America as they crawled out of their parents' laps), Bennett and artist Michael Hague produced this year "The Children's Book of Virtues." Same character traits - courage, perseverance, responsibility, compassion, faith - but with rich illustrations guaranteed to enthrall your child.

For teens, there is "The Book of Virtues for Young People." ("What are virtues? Why do you need them? How do you get them?") And for those who have really lost their way, "The Moral Compass." More stories of virtue and responsibility, but organized along the time line of life's journey.

Is anyone else offended yet?

Bill Bennett has made a cottage industry out of our painful realization that much of what is wrong in this country is traceable not only to some bloated and intrusive government program, but also to the angry or empty discourse between parents and children.

4 He's right, of course. And it has made him rich.

"The Book of Virtues" was on best-seller lists for more than a year and a half and has sold more than 2.5 million copies. Hardcover sales are so solid they aren't even thinking about paperback rights yet. Sales have earned the former secretary of education and national drug czar at least $5 million and justify a speech fee that now approaches $40,000.

"The Moral Compass" has a first printing of 730,000 and "The Children's Book of Virtues" 500,000. Bennett's virtuous empire has spawned plans for an animated series on PBS - "Adventures from 'The Book of Virtues.' "

And it has produced a reaction. "A Call to Character," edited by Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl, is being promoted as "a liberal alternative to "The Book of Virtues.' "

Check your local bookstores. They are peddling more virtues than the church in your neighborhood. Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and the Virgin Mary are nudging Tom Clancy and John Grisham off the shelves.

I am waiting for the Time/Life Virtues Series, a glossy, four-color encyclopedia of values. A new volume will arrive at your home each month for just $19.95. Collect all 10. Faith, Loyalty, Friendship . . . .

Soon, there will be Columbia House Virtues Club. Buy your first three virtues for $1. Thereafter, you may write "cancel" on your virtues invoice at any time.

Next, the Virtues MasterCard. Earn a 5 percent rebate on all your purchases and apply your savings to a complete set of virtues.

The only format that would work in our house, however, would be a virtual virtues reality video game in which my son would earn points by shooting his bad qualities out of the sky.

Don't mistake me. I long ago realized the "if it feels good, do it" philosophy of my misspent hippie youth was not applicable to child-rearing. Free-form, unstructured, nonjudgmental living does not work as a style for parents.

Kids need to be anchored in our culture, our history and our traditions, just as Bill Bennett suggests. And he is right when he says we cannot send them off into the world with some vague collection of opinions and hope they come up with something concrete on their own. We have to give them a rock on which to build their houses, not shifting sands. I think that Bible story is probably in one of his books.

But I am offended by the merchandising of virtues. It is worse even than when politicians wave them like a bloody shirt and claim them for their party. I am afraid that my hopes for the kind of person my children will grow to be are nothing more than a trend, like bread machines or racquetball. A need created by some marketing genius. Like Bill Bennett.

I dread that we might look back on the '90s as "The Virtues Decade," and laugh like we do at disco.

Bennett's success in the marketplace of ideas - an apt description if ever there was one - means people listen when he preaches, and I'm not sure collecting a bunch of fables and poems between book covers gives anyone standing as the conscience of America.

When he brandishes his anger against gansta rap, Time Warner fires people and divests itself of the subsidiary that produces that music. When he calls a news conference to decry the tawdry slop on television talk shows, their hosts and producers scurry to meet in self-examination.

And Bill Bennett has an audience when he rails not only against unwed teen mothers but also when he says that divorce is the socially accepted abandonment of children.

And he can get a U.S. senator, Republican Dan Coats of Indiana, to sponsor a package of 18 virtuous bills that, among other things, promote charities, private schools and abstinence education and discourage divorce.

I agree with Bennett that the fabric of our society is stained and threadbare and that it must be strengthened, not from the federal government down, but from the living room out.

I know it is my responsibility to "train up a child in the way he should go, so that when he is grown, he will not depart from it." I'll bet you can find that quote, too, in "The Book of Virtues."

But I am offended that Bill Bennett may view my family's struggle toward virtue as a key to the bank, or the key to success - and not a key to the kingdom.

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