Ronald Reagan's Cabinet members coined the motto "learn, earn, and serve" to describe the career path that brought them to the corridors of power, recalls former Education Secretary William J. Bennett. Unlike many of his well-heeled colleagues, however, Bennett did not enter the White House with a bulging bank account. "I essentially got my PhD and went into government," says Bennett, 58. "I skipped the earning part."
Now, he's making up for lost time. Since he left government more than a decade ago, Bennett has earned millions, but, unlike most former government mandarins, not by lobbying. Instead, he is making his fortune as America's self-appointed moral guardian, pontificating on everything from the unsuitability of gangsta rap to Bill Clinton's sexual peccadilloes. His latest venture, an online education business geared to home-schoolers, could broaden his reach further. When combined with his best-seller, The Book of Virtues, a spin-off cartoon series and merchandise sales, and speeches that pay more than $40,000 apiece, Bennett is more influential than when he served in Reagan's Cabinet or as the elder George Bush's drug czar. The result: Bill Bennett Inc., a one-man ideology factory churning out morality by the bucket--and raking in the cash.
Where will it all lead? Bennett hasn't ruled out a Presidential bid. While he has never run for office, he doesn't believe this would hamper a White House run. "I don't think people have to follow conventional political patterns anymore," he says. He would be a long-shot candidate, but Bennett would not suffer from low name recognition.
This spring, Bennett opens the doors at his newest and most ambitious enterprise as chairman of K12, a private McLean (Va.) company that will offer a primary and secondary education completely online. K12's targets are the 1.5 million to 2 million home schoolers (page 110). The teach-your-kids-at-home market is largely conservative, and the inroads Bennett could make in this community are a right-leaning politician's dream. "Home-schoolers tend to be an extremely politically active group," says Elliot Mincberg of liberal advocacy group People for the American Way.
Bennett, who also serves as co-chairman of conservative think tank Empower America, demurs that K12 "isn't some clever route to the Presidential thing." But he is keen to expand K12's scope by providing free access to the company's Web site, where he will periodically post his most recent musings. "It could be a virtue lesson of the week," says Bennett. He even plans to address his charges every morning as they log on to their computers.
SELECTIVE INDIGNATION? Involvement in online education flies in the face of his earlier skepticism about technology in the classroom. Two years ago, Bennett wrote in The Educated Child that there was "no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning." Also somewhat contradictory is the partnership behind the company's financing. K12 began with $10 million in seed money from Menlo Park (Calif.) educational conglomerate Knowledge Universe Inc., owned by former junk-bond king Michael R. Milken. Although Milken is a convicted felon who served time for securities fraud in the early '90s, Bennett sees no discrepancy between his reputation as a conservative moralist and Milken's investment in K12. "I don't feel any discomfort," he says.
Bennett's critics allege that his moral indignation can be selective. "I've found him to be much more contemptuous of Democratic human failings than Republican human failings," says Democratic strategist James Carville. One example: Bennett was outraged by Clinton's behavior in the White House but was one of Reagan's staunchest defenders during the Iran-contra affair.
That doesn't mean Bennett always pulls his punches against his GOP brethren. Early in the 2000 primaries, he wrote a newspaper editorial that called on George W. Bush to come clean about his drug history. After Bennett repeated the call on national TV, the Bush campaign offered to furnish him with campaign-sanctioned responses. "I don't use talking points," was Bennett's reply.
He also publicly took former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to task for cheating on his wife with a staff member. But Bennett's ethics advice hasn't always been the best. He advised Gingrich to accept a $4.5 million book advance from media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 1995, for example. "At the time, he thought it was perfectly appropriate," says Gingrich. "Later on he called to say he had been wrong."
Critics say Bennett's provocations are sometimes greater than his accomplishments. "He engaged in a lot of self-righteous promotion," says Bard College President Leon Botstein, who dealt with Bennett in the '80s as head of New York's Council of Humanities. "I'm not sure what the self-righteousness was all about, given that educational performance didn't improve on his watch, and drug use didn't decline either." Bennett's supporters counter that neither Cabinet position provided much opportunity to shape policy.
INFLUENTIAL. Still, Bennett is enormously influential in GOP circles. He helped Gingrich write the 1994 Contract With America. After Bennett worked on Bob Dole's seminal 1995 Presidential campaign speech accusing Hollywood of coarsening American culture by hawking violent and sex-drenched films, Dole sounded him out as a potential Vice-Presidential nominee.
Bennett might be the darling of conservatives today, but he didn't always skew to the right. As a student, he flirted with joining the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and once went on a blind date with rock-diva Janis Joplin. Nor was Bennett the product of an Ozzie and Harriet upbringing. He and older brother Robert were born in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and their parents split up when they were children. Bennett says he isn't sure whether his mother was married two or three more times, but both she and Bennett's grandmother raised the boys by stressing old-fashioned ethics. "From the earliest days, the concept of principle, and right and wrong, were emphasized to the hilt," says Bob, who served as Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones lawsuit and whose views often clashed with Bill's. "We've had our disagreements," admits Bob, who nonetheless insists that the two are on good terms.
While Bennett flirted with throwing his hat in the ring in 1988 and 1996, the prospect of endless fund-raisers dissuaded him. But if he never acts on the Presidential aspirations he has harbored for over a decade, he has a pretty decent consolation prize: a megaphone and a captive audience to rival Washington's most powerful pols. And he gets to keep a lot of the money he raises.
By Alexandra Starr in Washington