Saturday, October 1, 2005

Bennett's Folly

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse – that race relations in America couldn’t sink lower than the naked dichotomies revealed by Hurricane Katrina – it gets worse. We have William Bennett to thank for the latest nadir in the racial dynamic. Bennett, the former secretary of education with a presumably former gambling jones, was on talk radio Friday. With one ridiculous and monstrously damaging utterance, Bennett has probably done more to galvanize the African American vote against the Republicans – after having made slight inroads in the 2004 election – than any five of the likely Democratic contenders for the presidency in 2008.

Bennett, on his call-in radio show, “Morning in America,” was answering a caller’s question when he took issue with the recently-published idea that one reason the national crime rate is in decline is that abortions have increased in frequency.

“But I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” said Bennett, whose 1993 book, “The Book of Virtues,” reached #1,777 in sales on the sales list the day after the comments.

Bennett went on to call that “an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

Check my previous word usage: What Bennett said wasn’t an utterance; the word “utterance” suggests something truly off the cuff, a brief spastic mumbling, a genuine conversational misstep. Bennett’s statement was a Statement, fully articulated, partially redacted and then repeated, with all the deliberation of an expression of one’s deeply-held values. He really believes this shit!

It of course goes without saying that Bennett’s immediate defense was the reflexive claim of being taken out of context, which begs the question of what context such a poisonous statement -- a perverse endorsement of the notion of the "criminal type" -- could possibly be taken in. As the days unfold this week, we can count on Bennett doing some kind of Mea Culpa Tour of the TV talk shows and interviews in newspapers – probably even a return to talk radio to, um, better explain himself. In spite of his constitutional antipathy to contrition, he’ll be singing “Kum Ba Yah” in some public place, sooner or later. You watch.

But there’s still no escaping the damage that Bennett’s folly has done to the Republican party’s bid to broaden its ethnic reach. African American voters turned out for the GOP in dramatically greater numbers in 2004. Even though much of that increase was due to an evangelical expression of revulsion at the rise of gay rights and the prospect of same-sex marriages, it was the kind of thing Republicans could point to as indicative of a change in the old animosities of the political past.

Now? Not so fast. It’s probable, all but certain that many African American voters were incensed by the slow federal reaction to the suffering after Hurricane Katrina; their perception of how the federal government responded ran counter to some of those same traditional, protect-the-least-among-us Christian values the GOP relied on in 2004. Bennett’s utero-genocidal commentary, and his elder statesman/rabid dog reputation within the Republican party, is the kind of disaster of perceptions that could help put the African American vote in play – certainly by the midterm elections next year.

The wild card is this emerging fiascette is the administration itself. Bennett has long been a champion of various conservative initatives, serving as education secretary in the Reagan administration and director of drug control policy under Bush the Elder. So people were understandably waiting for the official White House response to Bennett’s comments, since (1) there had to be one FAST and (2) the White House knew it. This was a gut check for the Bushies, if not a reality check (one of several over the past four years).

The administration responded with very weak tea on Friday. “The president believes the comments were not appropriate,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

With those two words, the White House again demonstrates a lack of connection with the true gravity of events swirling around them. GOP strategists angling for the African American vote in 2006, and again two years later, have heroic work cut out for them. The phrase “damage control” doesn’t begin to express what’s necessary.

One would hope for some kind of amplification or enlargement of the tepid White House response. That reaction alone to Bennett’s comments will be perceived, right or wrong, as another barometer of the deeper Republican feelings about race in this country; it will say a lot about how big that hypothetical “big tent” of Republican inclusion really is.

And as sure as any Republican candidate running in 2006 will be seen as a proxy for the White House, the White House reaction to Bennett’s venom will be among the factors that may make or break the candidacies of any number of GOP hopefuls running for Congress next year.


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  2. Don't forget Bennett's folly in the Drug War of the 80s ... what a failure!


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