Not quite a lovesong. A former education secretary tells his side

The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir, by Terrel H. Bell. New York: Free Press. 195 pp. $19.95. ``His eyes said, `yes, yes.' His lips said, `no, no.'''

Former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell has written an inside-the-beltway book about a struggle of conscience, his own. How could he faithfully serve the President who appointed him to abolish the Department of Education while remaining true to his own conviction that the federal government play a major role in American schools?

That the book is self-serving goes without saying. Alexander Haig did much the same in recounting his stormy tenure as secretary of state. Both the conduct and the direction of foreign policy repeatedly went counter to the general's wishes. He resigned less than two years after he was appointed.

Education policy, however grudgingly, went Bell's way despite battles with conservative apparatchiks in the White House. Unlike Haig, he remained in office for a full four years.

On balance, Bell's book is disappointing. From its first pages questions nag, and they continue to do so long after ``The Thirteenth Man'' is back on the shelf.

Bell dwells on the stress he experienced because he was at odds with President Reagan's goal of closing the department. It became for him an inner struggle of Hamlet-like proportions, to which a simple question: Why did Bell take four years to resign, given the distance, a principled distance as he continuously reminds us, between what he did and what the President wanted done? Struggle it may have been, but more on the scale of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Most troubling are his charges that midlevel officials in the White House and the Office of Management and Budget made racist jokes and other contemptible remarks during civil rights discussions. Bell names no names. He says jokes about Martin Luther King Jr. were made as Reagan was deciding whether to sign or veto a bill establishing King's birthday as a national holiday. Arabs were another target, Bell writes.

``I do not mean to imply that these scurrilous remarks were common utterances in the rooms and corridors of the White House and the Old Executive Office Building, but I heard them when issues related to civil rights enforcement weighed heavily on my mind,'' Bell writes.

His allegations are puzzling. What is gained by mentioning them, coming as they do from underlings whom he refuses to identify? If the offensive comments were made even once, let alone with any regularity, he should have gone public with them as they occurred; or boycotted the sessions - letting any and all know the reason for his absence. He is open to the countercharge of self-serving insinuations.

His comments and observations on ``A Nation at Risk,'' his now-famous education report, shed invaluable insights on the education reforms that have swept the country for the last five years. Bell narrates the events leading up to and immediately after the issuing of the report, which is his most important accomplishment in four years as secretary of education. The response to the report caught not only him, but also the entire nation by surprise, and he justly deserves the thanks of the nation.

Concern about the issues raised in the Bell report has still not peaked and is not likely to anytime soon. It will be instructive to see what his successor, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, says in a report to be issued this spring, ``Nation at Risk - Five Years later,'' and what Bell will say about Bennett's report.

Bell closes with a list of critical issues confronting the nation's schools. It is both detailed and comprehensive, and predictably, anticlimactically, ends with the call for ``a lot more money'' from taxpayers. He calls for federal, state, and local governments to spend $25 billion more on Chapter I, the federal remediation program for poor children; Head Start, the preschool program for the poor; and the Job Corps.

That there is a raging debate about better use of existing monies, that there are doubts about the value taxpayers are getting for their money at present (some $4,000 per student at the elementary and secondary level) is duly noted by Bell. His idea for a national trust fund to meet these financial needs is appealing. But one is far from sanguine about what would happen if more money were spent, given the special interests and the political partisans queuing at the federal larder. Surprisingly, Bell ducks this issue, especially given his detailed account of his battles with teacher unions in Utah when he tried to introduce a modest merit pay plan.

Bell cemented the bully pulpit role for the secretary of education with ``A Nation at Risk.'' Bennett, has masterfully expanded that role. But the post is still new, and it will take three or four more administrations before the full range of responsibilities commensurate with the office is established. Bell sheds little new light on this. It is to be hoped that Bennett, a more talented writer, will leave a more substantive account of what he thinks the office requires for the next person who holds it.

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