When Bill Bennett listens, people talk

Posted: Apr 06, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

Bennett invites guests to his show, from politicians to pundits, but the critical component is dialogue between host and callers, whom he treats as equals. "We talk about things that matter in a way that's looking for consensus," without advancing any particular ideology. Yes, Bennett identifies himself as a "conservative," but in truth, he is a classic liberal.

Consistent with the definition of a classic liberal (as opposed to the distorted version of today), Bennett has a healthy distrust of government. He's been plenty critical of President George W. Bush, such that Bush greeted him at a Christmas party, "Hello, Ornery."

He is also classically non-elitist and tries to make callers comfortable. As an occasional guest, I can attest to the success of his approach, which he describes by quoting the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832):

"The way to be comfortable is to make others comfortable, the way to make others comfortable is to appear to love them, the way to appear to love them, is to love them in reality."

Mostly, Bennett says he respects Americans' intelligence, which may be what distinguishes him from programs such as "Air America."

"Liberals (the modern kind) really think they're smarter than everyone else, therefore they don't listen."

Bennett graciously agrees with my proposition that his show marks a turning point in the American dialogue, conceding that we may be entering a "post-yelling" period. "People are tired of it."

People also are tired of the viciousness that feeds the food-fight culture, something that is familiar to Bennett and any who risk debate in the public arena. I asked him specifically about the charges of hypocrisy he doubtless enjoys, owing to his high profile as the traditional-values, book-of-virtues guru.

"If you've got to be perfect to talk about right and wrong, nobody gets to talk," he says. "Unless you did everything right, you can't raise children, you can't tell them things are wrong. How would you have a jury? You can't make judgments. . To have a hypocrisy-free zone is to have no judgment at all."

Even Pope John Paul II didn't do everything right, Bennett noted in his Monday show. "But you take a man's measure by the totality of his actions."

That noise you don't hear is the sound of a million heads nodding.

(For program times, transcripts and other information, go to www.bennettmornings.com.)