Bennett, Sen. Nunn launch commission to study social ills Yearlong investigation is to be centered at College Park institute

November 14, 1996|By Robert Gee | Robert Gee,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- Pointing to a decline in national civility, Sen. Sam Nunn and William J. Bennett, the former education secretary and drug czar, teamed up yesterday to launch a commission to study what they say are the social pathologies that imperil society.

Nunn, a retiring Georgia Democrat, and Bennett, a leading GOP voice on moral issues, said they were alarmed by signs of a nation succumbing to drug abuse, crime, pornography and family breakups, among other problems.

They said they saw no obvious remedies but thought the commission's recommendations, to be offered by the end of next year, would be crafted to encourage civic responsibility.

"America is the most powerful and affluent and enviable nation in the world," Bennett said at a news conference yesterday. "It is also true that America leads the world in rates of murder, violent crime, juvenile crime, divorce, abortion, children born out of wedlock and consumption of cocaine and other drugs. Something is wrong."

The National Commission on Civic Renewal is the brainchild of William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland and a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.

Galston, who will serve as the panel's executive director, will oversee the research at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy in College Park.

Among the panel's responsibilities will be to study why so many social institutions -- schools, churches, families -- have seemingly fallen into disrepair.

The commission will be made up of 23 leaders drawn from religion, academia, business, politics and philanthropy, including Lamar Alexander, the former Republican presidential candidate, and Henry Louis Gates, chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University. The panel will benefit from about $1 million donated by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In line with Congress' reluctance to expand federal spending, the commission will set goals and stress voluntary solutions, rather than push legislation.

Nunn said the recommendations would focus on the "private actions of men and women in this country who may not have the same definition of morality, but at some point have the ability to say what is right and what is wrong."

Bennett brushed aside the suggestion that America's social values are not necessarily more corroded today than they were in past decades. He suggested that evidence of public alienation -- he mentioned last week's 49 percent voter turnout in the presidential election, the lowest in 72 years -- was widespread.

Galston cited recent public opinion polls as cause for alarm, including a Los Angeles Times poll this year that found 78 percent of Americans were "dissatisfied with moral values these days."

Nunn and Bennett, the author of the best-selling "The Book of Virtues" and a co-director of the conservative think tank Empower America, were quick to concede their small stature in the face of the troubling trends they cited.

"A society will not improve overnight," Nunn said. "But I hope America will be able to look back years from now and say this was indeed a turning point."

"The most dominant attitude among the public is cynicism," Bennett said. Referring to last week's low voter turnout, he added: "A gentleman told me yesterday that this was the 'whatever election.' "

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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