A Call for Reasonable Outrage


By William J. Bennett

Free Press

154 pp., $20

William Bennett finished this book before President Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony and his telling few minutes before a national television audience that same evening. The discussion has shifted somewhat. But Mr. Bennett's argument, made with a blend of fervor and cold logic, still finds its mark.

In fact, many who might have been inclined to brush this book-length essay aside as a diatribe from an all-too-familiar source may now be more muted in their comments. Bill Clinton's admission of deceiving the public and those around him regarding Monica Lewinsky is corroboration - from an unimpeachable source, if you will - of much that Bennett sets forth here.

That's not to say everything in this terse work sits well. The former Education secretary and drug czar, a master of the public pulpit and a veteran of the so-called culture wars, targets the president, but occasionally scatters his fire to include, for example, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, columnist Anthony Lewis, and a range of feminist figures. Those arrows sometimes seem gratuitous.

Moreover, though he denies political motivation, Bennett clearly states his abhorrence for Clinton policies ranging from smaller defense budgets to women's access to abortion. Many will find it easy to prejudge his book as a partisan polemic and avoid it.

But that would be a mistake for a couple of reasons. First, Bennett's skill at crafting an argument makes this a compelling reading experience, even if you're not won over on many, or any, of his points. He carefully reconstructs and then demolishes each defense that has been made of the president's behavior since the Lewinsky story broke last January, starting with "It's just about sex" and ending with "Let's not be judgmental."

In between are such items as a look at Ken Starr (just doing his job) and the independent counsel law (which Bennett opposes on constitutional separation-of-powers grounds). Polemics it is, but it's a polemical tour de force.

A more important reason, however, to sample Bennett's thinking is its emphasis on moral issues that should concern every American. Is adultery a purely private act with no public import or consequence? The answer to that question, for anyone who takes a moment to ponder the centrality of marital fidelity to the health of families and society, is unequivocally "no." Are character and integrity abstract side issues, outweighed by current economic well-being? Drawing on the arguments of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, Bennett comments: "The leader must be whole; he cannot have his public character be honest and his private character be deceitful."

Does tolerance require the withholding of judgment? Bennett: "For a free people, the ordeal of judgment cannot be shirked. To try to shirk it is not to be sensitive or tolerant, it is to avoid responsibility."

By every moral measure he applies, Bennett finds Clinton an abject failure - "a reproach," as he puts it. Outrage is far from dead, if Bill Bennett's any indication.

He draws numerous parallels between the current scandal and Watergate, emphasizing that what's involved - concealing the truth and impeding the working of justice - is the same. And he leaves no doubt that, in his view, the outcomes should be parallel too.

Outrage, however, has its limitations, even within the discussion enjoined by Bennett. Great anger is rarely compatible with making a sound moral judgment. Such a judgment is what Bennett is really arguing for, and what the country is haltingly moving toward in the president's case. It will arrive there through the processes of government, through the collective wisdom of the people, and, one would hope, through honest self-examination on the part of Bill Clinton.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor staff writer.

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