AN avenging angel. An arrogant self-promoter. A white knight. A red dragon. William J. Bennett, soon to depart as US secretary of education, has been called all these things and more during his 40 months as the nation's top schoolmaster - a time of intense interest in and anxiety about the quality of American learning.
One thing is certain: Since Dr. Bennett replaced Terrel Bell, who refused to go along with the Reagan administration effort to shut down the Education Department, he has put his job on the map - given it new importance.
``If the [next education secretary] isn't an activist it'll be noticed,'' Bennett says from his office overlooking the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. ``It's better for the country if both parties debate ideas.''
His successor ``better not do a lot of shark-fin lunches,'' he says. ``The person better like visiting third grade in Toledo.''
Bennett (who leaves office Sept. 12) broke the traditional Republican hands-off approach to federal social involvement. With all the timidity and preciousness of a Sherman tank, he became the most activist of the nation's chief educators to date - from slamming fat-cat Capitol Hill lobbyists, to proposing a national high school curriculum based on a classical academic core that stressed Western civilization and democracy.
He weathered being pegged early on as the new James Watt of the Reagan White House, another foot-swallowing ideologue - to become a darling of the press, lauded by David Broder of the Washington Post; colorful, quotable, and good for more juicy stories than Scheherazade.
Bennett lovers say the secretary shifted the issue of education back to ``the American people'' - the parents and citizens he constantly invokes - and away from mealy-mouthed bureaucrats and policy specialists. He demanded more accountability and higher standards - forgotten words in the 1970s. He stepped into an arid public square and reaffirmed a common tradition of American virtues - hard work, basic knowledge, family values. He battled moral relativism - a pervasive ethos in schools that refuse to make fine distinctions between differing ideas about government, values, behaviors. He got out of Washington - praising good teachers and principals in more than 100 schools across the country.
Further, as the voice of the common man, Bennett admonished the hand-wringing liberal humanist education establishment for its hyper-intellectualized, overly complex approach to learning, especially for the disadvantaged. As he says: ``Some states are now showing us that maybe some of the problems of schooling aren't as intractable as we thought. Maybe we don't have to reinvent the wheel; re-create the world every five years. Corporations say the problem isn't that kids can't follow complexity, it's that they can't read, can't follow instructions, don't show up on time. I wish we could defancify some of this. There's a need for basic basics.''
Detractors of Bennett see a different man and a different record: They see an opportunist who found that bashing the education establishment made for good politics and good press - however destructive it might be to a fragile reform movement. Bennett was busy looking for headlines and never got close enough to the actual sweat and toil of reform to know how or what important work to do under the surface.
Hence, critical opportunities were missed. He bashed teacher unions just as they were showing a readiness to change. He ignored strategic funding for public school choice and preschool Head Start. Although preaching civic virtue, he was silent on volunteer community service. He began playing out a persona. His visits to local schools were media events for a man without a constituency in search of higher office.
Bill Honig, superintendent of California schools, says: ``He's made it tough for guys like me. He flies in, makes a controversial speech, and polarizes people. It's a thrill to get the press, but who stays after to do the dirty work? Why couldn't he build coalitions among those of us who feel he's right on many issues?''
Time magazine, in a July 18 profile of Bennett, intimates that the secretary may become a leading light in the Republican Party. Bennett will make a prime-time speech at the GOP convention next Wednesday. But insiders are skeptical. George Bush has so far kept his distance.
The importance Bennett gave his post is also due to taking on tough issues: AIDS (``kids need to know about it''); college quality and cost; faster mainstreaming of bilingual children.
``I created a lot of room on the left,'' he states. ``People could say some pretty tough, old-fashioned things and still be to my left.''
Gerald Grant of Syracuse University says Bennett has ensured that future education secretaries will have to be more than technocrats.
Others see the status Bennett lent his post as an opening for a less contentious secretary - but one still not captive to Congress or the establishment - to form strategic legislation. Preschool, comparative test data, even a federal takeover of a bad school or two, are ideas suggested by Bruce Babbitt in the August Washington Monthly.
As the Reagan era ends, Babbitt asks, ``Is there a federal role that extends beyond personal exhortation? Congress has been unable to answer that question; its response is simply to churn out more demonstration grants for the latest fad from the last expert to testify within range of a camera.''