Bill Steigerwald

Conservative author and radio talk-show host Bill Bennett has been a prominent American political and cultural figure since 1981, when he became President Reagan's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later Secretary of Education. The author of 16 books -- including "The Book of Virtues" and his newest, "The American Patriot's Almanac" -- he is host of "Bill Bennett's Morning in America," a syndicated talk show that airs from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on nearly 200 radio stations and Sirius Patriot Channel 144. I talked to the man The New York Times says is "the leading spokesman of the Traditional Values wing of the Republican Party" on Thursday.

Q: Was Barack Obama's victory due to his personality or his neo-New Deal ideas?

A: All of the above and more. It was a perfect storm of a campaign for him. He's a terrifically talented political figure. If politics is a sport, like some others, he's a natural. He made very few mistakes. Second, his ideas seemed to be right, given the circumstances. And as you probably have noted, it looks like the ideas of free-market capitalism didn't get a very good airing in the last campaign. John McCain's a great guy. But he never defended the basic principles of free-market capitalism. He talked about earmarks, but never the rationale for free-market capitalism. . Plus, another part of the storm was the economic collapse of Sept. 15. I'm not sure anybody wins on our side after that.

Q: What did the Obama victory tell you about the Republican Party's current health and fitness?

A: Well, what it told me is that we haven't been very good Republicans. I think our principles are fine; I think they need some refocus and much better explanation. One thing that has not been talked about is the "failure to communicate," as Cool Hand Luke said. George Bush is a terrific guy in a lot of ways, but he's not a good communicator. The rationale for various things was never really made in a compelling way, whether it be the war or other steps. By the way, contrast that with a first-rate communicator.

These things also often happen in cycles. There's a kind of schoolyard ethic in America which says it's somebody else's turn. Combine that with the final point, which is ironically Ronald Reagan's teaching -- if it happens on your watch, it happened because of you; and are you better off than you were four or eight years ago -- and you have the result. I'm kind of pleased that McCain got 46 percent. Given all that was against him, that's not really so bad. Byron York has written that McCain was flying into head winds. I told Byron at the governors conference (in Miami) that he was flying into a Category 5 hurricane.

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..