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'Joe, you can do better than that'

National | Cultural warrior William Bennett discusses with WORLD his "big disappointment" in his old friend and one-time co-warrior Joseph Lieberman: "There were days I thought I was standing next to Amos and Jeremiah," Bennett recalls. "Turns out I was standing next to Seinfeld."

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

Here's Joe Lieberman in 1999: "If they [Hollywood producers] continue to market death and degradation to our children and pay no heed to the carnage, then one way or another, the government will act." And here's Joe Lieberman in 2000: "We will never, never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will noodge you, but we will never become censors." The turnabout frustrates former co-laborer Bill Bennett. "I come from Brooklyn," Mr. Bennett, co-director of Empower America, told WORLD. "I know what the word noodge means.... And if you look at the language ... that Lieberman and I formerly used together, that's not noodging." Clearly, Mr. Bennett takes no joy in criticizing his friend, but in an interview last week with WORLD editors, Mr. Bennett explained why he thinks he must. You have said that Joe Lieberman is not showing courage, but incoherence, possibly even cravenness and cynicism. Why do you think he's become so craven?
Well, I don't know. Not even the devil himself knows the mind of man. The plausible explanation is politics. I can't believe it's the personality of Al Gore. These Hollywood people have to be buttered up. Maybe it's just the thrill of the campaign and to hell with principle. But they have the Hollywood people anyway. That's the odd thing. Hollywood people aren't going to support George Bush. They are not going to support anybody who opposes abortion. Did you really think that when Lieberman was picked that a corner had been turned and that perhaps the Democrats would show leadership on the cultural questions?
No, I didn't think the Democrats would, but I thought Joe might keep his shape. I wrote in The Wall Street Journal a few days after, that certainly the selection of Lieberman should give aid and comfort to Republicans in the Bush campaign because his view was so similar to Gov. Bush on a lot of things. And as I argued then, it would prove harder for the Gore campaign to criticize a lot of George Bush's principles and points because so many of them were Lieberman's. But he has now effectively retreated on all of them so that that kind of support isn't there. He could still be embarrassed by having shifted his position on so many things. Clearly Gore has triumphed over Lieberman rather than the other way around. You have said that you are a virtual absolutist on the First Amendment. Do you see any role for government in this area and what would your advice be to the next administration?
No, not much. I do not know why we cannot rouse the people against the pollution of children's hearts and souls the way we've roused them on things like tobacco. Or if you'd like another analogy, the pollution of the human environment as compared to the natural environment. Pope John Paul has talked about moral ecology, and in fact it's more important than the ecology of nature. I don't think we need to write laws about this stuff or have Congress legislating. We just need to hear a loud and clear message from the American people of shame, "shame on you Jack Valenti." [Motion Picture Association of America Chairman] Jack Valenti and his folks should be treated like people who run tobacco companies. Many of the people I know who work for tobacco companies are quietly looking for jobs elsewhere. No, I don't want legislation. They're not going to legislate anyway. Obviously the Democrats are just talking a big game. Valenti himself said: If I were running for president I would attack the motion picture industry and then not do anything afterwards. What should Dick Cheney say about all this when he debates Lieberman?
I think he should say, "Joe, why did you change? Do you think 'noodge' is a synonym for shame?" I come from Brooklyn. I know what the word noodge means. It means a gentle tug. And if you look at the language I quote in the Wall Street Journal piece that Lieberman and I formerly used together, that's not noodging. There were days I thought I was standing next to Amos and Jeremiah; turns out I was standing next Seinfeld. That's a comedown. Maybe it won't work in this culture anymore; people might think that's progress, but I think Amos to Seinfeld is not progress. I would talk about that [anti-Christian] joke [told at the big Hollywood fundraiser]. I would have Cheney say, "Why do you laugh at that joke?" These guys go to Tennessee and tell us about their faith, and they go to Hollywood and they laugh about their faith. If you had a Bush party anywhere in this country and someone stood up and spoke about a Jewish moneylender, or made a joke about anything relating to Jews or Jewish stereotypes, the headlines would thunder across the newspapers and the TV talk shows. I assume thunder would come from you as well.
Absolutely. You may have seen me defending Lieberman the last few weeks because of his talking about religion. But very little on this. When Joe is asked about it [the joke], he says "First Amendment." That's weak. That's what we heard when we went to [Rupert] Murdoch and [Edgar] Bronfman and CBS. We heard "First Amendment." Joe, you can do better than that. Are we at the point now where anti-Christian jokes are kind of the only thing you can get away with?
I have said that a number of times before, I'm not the only one. But the only "respectable" form of bigotry in America is anti-Christian bigotry. Anti-Catholic, anti-Christian bigotry. I have heard some people say, "What's offensive about that joke?" They don't understand. The context, of course, was deriding the Bush campaign, making sneering comments about Bush, and linking Bush to people's personal relationship with Jesus Christ as a way of insulting all of them. For Lieberman to be involved in this is a big disappointment. How should Christians react to this?
I think they should be angry. I think they should insist first of all that Gore and Lieberman apologize for not walking out-explain why they didn't walk out, and explain why they didn't denounce it on the spot. What is there in the press that eats up this kind of humor and allows Gore and Lieberman essentially to get a free pass?
There's an old expression, the person being pressed on his point of view said, "I may be wrong and everything, but at least I'm contemporary." The contemporary ethos of the pseudo-sophisticates is to be vaguely or explicitly agnostic or atheistic, relativistic in their values, and to put down people as dopes who believe, and take their faith seriously, take their patriotism seriously, and take their morals seriously. This is a big deal. If people want the folks who are at this Hollywood fundraiser to continue to set the cultural tone for this White House, which, of course, they have been doing during the Clinton era, then they'll elect Gore and Lieberman. Without much objection from Lieberman to the setting of the cultural tone [by] the cynical, modern relativistic pseudo-sophisticated halfwits. I would really like to debate these people in public, but they don't come out in public. There has been a small rebellion-maybe it's a big rebellion-over the football prayer decision of the Supreme Court. Do you condone what folks are doing around the country with their "spontaneous organized prayers"?
Yeah, sure. I was asked about this the other day, and I said that one of the interesting things they used to say about East Germans was when Communists had their showoff place they had it in East Germany because people joked that even under Communism you couldn't discourage Germans from working. I can't conceive of a situation in which you could discourage Texans from praying. I know Texans, and they pray. And praying before football games may be an even more common thing for Texans. They take their prayer and their football seriously. But on a serious note, of course I condone it. You can't stop the American people from praying. And the fact that so many want to is one good sign. How far should this spread? How useful would it be, in other areas too, that when the Supreme Court makes a terrible decree, for people to engage in civil disobedience?
I think we may be heading there. I have said for years that I expect that this may come. It could be that massive civil disobedience or large civil disobedience of the sort Martin Luther King practiced may be the next stage. We'll see. A lot of this will depend on what happens. And a lot of what happens depends on what happens in the Supreme Court. And a lot of what happens in the Supreme Court will depend on the election. One last question, Jews learned over the centuries how to be a minority and how to survive. This is something that Christians have not learned in this country, at least, because for a long time there's been a sense of majority. What can Christians learn from Jews about ways to fight back as a minority?
That's a big question. I don't know. Christian Americans are easy-going folks. They are big on tolerance. They are big on getting along. But from time to time I think people at that cocktail party, or at that gathering, or at that rally, or watching that television show, or going to that fundraiser, whatever it is, at some point Christians are going to have to realize that they don't have to be martyrs of old, but they are going to have to stand up a little more resolutely in public for their faith. There are plenty of examples we can learn from Jews and Christians alike. But it's a sorry thing when being a person of straightforward faith, you become an object of derision, not just from low-ball comedians, but from low-ball comedians in the presence of the most powerful people in the land. And that's not just talking about this Hollywood fundraiser, but this thing on C-Span. I don't know if you saw it in May with Robin Williams, with the president and vice president doubling over in laughter as he went through four-letter word after four-letter word in the presence of children. This is pretty serious stuff. I am a Catholic, and I know we are all counseled to turn the other cheek. I am prepared to turn the other cheek for myself, but I am not so prepared to do it for my kids.

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