William Bennett, 68, was secretary of education in the Reagan administration and later served as "drug czar." He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin, is now a national radio talk show host, and has written or edited 20 books, including The Book of Virtues and The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (Thomas Nelson, 2011). Here are edited excerpts of a November interview.
You've done a lot ... When you're young you can work hard. When you're old you can't sleep, so you have no choice.
Regarding sleep: For seven years you've been doing a 6-9 a.m. radio show-what time do you get up? About 3, 3:30. If I fall asleep during my own remarks, don't judge the merits of them on that fact.
Any generalizations you can make on the mood of the country, or at least your callers, based on those seven years? Anxious, worried, depressed, very concerned about their future, more concerned about the future of their children and their grandchildren.
The name of your show, "Morning in America," refers to both the time of day and to President Reagan, who spoke optimistically about this country. Do you think it's still morning in America? Don't ever count this country out. I think the antibodies are kicking in. Look at the rise of the Tea Party and the 2010 elections. We are seeing a call, sometimes in code, sometimes unclear, sometimes diffused, but a call for first principles. People have a sense that we need to go back to the roots. If we go back to the Founders, then I'm very encouraged. But we shall see.
People in the 1990s talked about you running for president. You never did. Why? Personal disqualifications, and I never had the passion for it. I was asked by Bob Dole if I would be his running mate. We were in California. He asked me to ride in the car with him back to the hotel. He said, "Who do you think I should have for vice president?" I said, "Jack Kemp." He said "No, not that guy. That guy's crazy." [Kemp was the eventual choice.] I said, "Who are you thinking of?" He said, "How about you?" I said, "Me? Why me?" He said, "Academic, Eastern, Catholic, intellectual." I said, "I'm so moved. It's so personal." A marriage proposal, you know? Category, category, category. ... Fine, it's politics. I thought about it. I just didn't have the heart for it.
Any interest four years later? George W. Bush said, "How about you?" I said, "No, I can't do it." He said, "Why?" I said, "Because I wrote The Book of Virtues." He said, "That's a great thing." I said, "Not if you've lived as big and as fully as I have." Fraternity life, gambling, hanging out, I didn't get married until I was 37. There was a country music song called "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places." I was doing some of that. Nothing illegal, nothing felonious. You could get away with it if you haven't written The Book of Virtues. But it set a standard that I never would have been able to meet.
Putting virtue aside for the moment, would you have wanted to run? I was sitting once with Phil Gramm when he was running against Dole for the Republican nomination. I said, "How are you feeling about this race?" He said, "I have 150 receptions in the next 30 days and I can't wait to get to them." Well, I would rather have my face sewn to the floor than go to 150 receptions in 30 days. Some guy who's a big donor comes up to you and says, "Most people think 2+2=4. I think it equals 5. What do you think?" You gotta say, "That's an interesting proposition." You can't say, "You're an idiot." So, I'm not made for this. My wife will tell you I get to a party and say, "Let's go, let's go, let's go."
Talk radio is more fun? I love what I do. People ask, "Why'd you get a Ph.D. in philosophy?" Because I want to be a talk show host. I want to be on radio. I can't wait to get up at 3:30 in the morning. It's a little weird.
Do you ever tell callers, "You're an idiot"? They're our guests. We actually listen to them. Jeremy Bentham said the way to put people at ease is to make them feel comfortable. The best way to make them feel comfortable is to appear as if you liked them. The best way to appear as if you liked them is actually to like them. So we listen to what our callers have to say. We don't yell.
At least the donor will display his idiocy. What about politicians who dissemble? I once had the No. 1 best-selling book in the country, The Death of Outrage. It was a case against Bill Clinton. Carville had the No. 2 book, a defense of Clinton. I was on TV all the time. I would talk to these Democrats on TV. Then the lights would go off, we would go to the green room, and they would say, "You're absolutely right." For God's sake, you've got to be able to say publicly what you believe privately. Many wouldn't do it.
Does today's worship of self oppose virtue? I saw the glorification of the self-ethic on an Oprah show. This guy was a molester of children. The audience was pummeling him. He then recited the mantra of the time: "I am who I am. This is authentically me." Very few people knew how to criticize that because the notion has been almost canonized. One of the worst speeches in literature is, "To thine own self be true." Charles Manson said, "I was true to my feelings."
One passage in Bennett's The Book of Man is a statement from President Calvin Coolidge after the death of his son, Calvin, in 1924:
"He was a boy of much promise, proficient in his studies, with a scholarly mind, who had just turned sixteen. He had a remarkable insight into things. The day I became President he had just started to work in a tobacco field. When one of his fellow laborers said to him, if my father was President I would not work in a tobacco field, Calvin replied, If my father were your father, you would.
"We do not know what might have happened to him under other circumstances, but if I had not been President, he would not have raised a blister on his toe, which resulted in blood poisoning, playing lawn tennis in the South Grounds. In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not.
"When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him. The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he would do. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House."