AT first blush, President Bush's choice of William J. Bennett as ``drug czar'' might seem a curious one. Mr. Bennett's background, after all, is not in drug programs but in education - first as chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities, most recently as United States secretary of education. True, his conservative credentials are dazzling. True, he's a Washington insider knit tightly to the new administration. True, his management style may give new meaning to the word czar. But is that enough? What does the job require?
Some would say it needs a cop's-eye view of the problem. The ideal czar, they observe, would have a law-enforcement background and a get-tough attitude concerning the supply side of the problem - coupled with a practical grasp of the difficulties faced by police on the beat and judges in the courtroom.
Others would call for a czar sensitive to the plight of the addict - not necessarily a former user, but someone steeped in the issues of drug rehabilitation, alive to the street-level pressures on teen-agers, and compassionately aware of the complexities of the demand side.
Still others would like to see a consummate manager, a behind-the-scenes organizer capable of building coalitions among Washington's turf-hungry bureaucrats. Such a person, coordinating the bevy of departments and agencies, should be a kind of 'eminence grise, wielding quiet authority but retiring from view in deference to others.
Bennett is none of these. One imagines him sharing a taxi with a Miami cop and finding little common ground. One can't picture him expressing an excess of kindness when assessing the societal influences on a Queens crack-user. And he's not known for avoiding the limelight.
But maybe the issues, here, are not simply supply, demand, and management. Maybe the need is to build political will and national consensus. Maybe a late-20th-century drug czar must design, construct, and occupy a towering bully pulpit.
If so, Bennett fits the job perfectly: That's exactly what he did at the Department of Education. He did it, in part, by issuing a stream of short reports - on such subjects as kids and drugs, by the way - and using the occasions of their release to harangue the public on the need to shape up and pay attention to education. He thundered and pleaded. He outraged and annoyed. He upset applecarts and scandalized the bourgeoisie. And people noticed.
Granted, there are more important things than being noticed. But there are also times when the world needs to be seized by the collar and shaken awake - not to the fact that we have a drug problem (which we already know) but to the fact that it is intolerable.
That's an unpopular word - intolerable. These days, the concept of tolerance is in vogue: We routinely assume that, in an enlightened culture, people must not be prevented from ``doing their own thing.'' So what's needed, just now, is someone to camp out on the moral high ground, insist on the difference between right and wrong, define drug use as wrong, condemn the do-your-own-thingers when they wreck lives and communities - and make such a frightful noise about it that tolerance - applied to illegal drugs - begins to lose some of its luster.
That's what a bully pulpit is for. Drug abuse won't be solved by throwing government resources at it. The problem will be solved only when the public has been galvanized into an inspired intolerance reaching deep into schools, streets, and households. For that task, Bennett's got the right ticket.