Kathleen Parker

Revolutions are not always noisy events. Sometimes they are quiet affairs - the product of long, thoughtful conversations between two people over coffee.

Or among millions listening, nodding their heads, building a contract through mutual need and mute assent. The success of Bill Bennett's morning talk radio show, which celebrated its first year Tuesday, suggests the latter kind.

In just one year, Bennett - variously known as America's "drug czar" or, if you're The New York Times, the nation's "leading spokesman" of traditional values - has managed to land 116 markets, including 18 of the top 20.

By comparison, Al Franken's "Air America," conceived as the antidote to conservative talk radio and launched a week before Bennett's show, airs in just over 50 markets.

Media analysts can parse the meaning of all this, but the secret to Bennett's success seems clear. He's a grown-up voice at a time when people are weary of childish tantrums in the public square. Just as spring comes when no one can bear another second of winter, Bennett found his radio venue when Americans couldn't stand another minute of broadcast hysterics.

His show, "Bill Bennett's Morning in America," is unique on several levels, not least of which is the host's gilded resume. He has served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1981-1985), Secretary of Education (1985-1988), and is the author and/or editor of 16 books, including the best-selling "Book of Virtues." He also holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, a law degree from Harvard, and currently is Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Thus, stumbling across Bill Bennett on the radio is like bumping into Socrates at Starbucks. In a nation accustomed to screeching screeds and foaming food fights posing as debate, hearing Bennett's soft-gravelly voice is like dipping into a warm bath. As you listen, you think maybe civilization isn't lost after all.

Not only is he coherent at 6 a.m. (ET) when his three-hour show begins, he's the anti-media man: no yelling, no dumbing down, no condescending. His approach, in fact, is based on the Socratic method, the three conditions of which he describes as: intelligence, candor and goodwill.

"We'll muster as much (intelligence) as we can at 6 a.m.; we'll be honest; and together, we'll try to get to an answer," says Bennett in a telephone interview.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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