Bickering Exposes the Frailty of Summit’s Consensus

By Reagan Walker — October 04, 1989 5 min read
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Moments after President Bush and several governors had pledged to make the summit a substantive, bipartisan effort to redefine education reform, a sharp and searing debate erupted.

The debate, which came last Wednesday in one of the summit’s first working sessions, pitted governors against the White House and Democrats against Republicans.

The confrontation was significant, several summit participants observed, because it starkly exposed the thin web of consensus holding the historic meeting together.

The lively session in question was moderated by William J. Bennett, the nation’s drug-policy coordinator and former Secretary of Education, who opened the meeting with a quote from Aristotle: “We should be candid and of good will.”

According to an account of the closed meeting from Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana, one of the governors at the session suggested that the nation should reorder its priorities to provide more funds for education, prompting Mr. Bennett to reply: “Well, you certainly passed the candid test.”

But many at the meeting--as well as several participants at a post-session press briefing--wondered aloud whether Mr. Bennett himself had passed the test of “good will.”

After Mr. Bennett’s remarks, conversation at the session, which was to have focused on the learning envi4ronment, turned quickly to a debate over federal funding.

Descriptions of the session from governors and governors’ aides ranged from “spirited” and “vigorous” to an outright “row.”

Sources said the scene was almost comical, with some of the governors jumping into the fray, while others nervously read from prepared statements.

During the news briefing after the session, Mr. Bennett characterized the meeting by saying that there had been “feisty exchanges” about the relative merits of defense and education spending.

“The tone was tilted neither to partisanship nor nonpartisanship,” he said.

But it was Mr. Bennett’s next series of remarks that made him a major topic of discussion on Thursday, the second day of the summit:

“There was pap--standard Democratic pap and standard Republican pap. There was a lot something that rhymes with pap.”

“There were occasional outbursts of candor and attempts to suppress them,” he continued. “Much of the discussion reflected little knowledge of what works.”

Govs. Raymond E. Mabus of Mississippi and Guy Hunt of Alabama, who shared the stage with Mr. Bennett at the post-session briefing, stood silently at the former Secretary’s side.

When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Mabus noted that Mr. Bennett had not specified who was uninformed and that “there were Administration people in there, too.”

Mr. Bennett responded, his voice dripping with sarcasm: “I didn’t know anything. The governors knew a lot. That’s the way it was.”

On Thursday, governors and their aides expressed varying levels of indignation, and there were indications that White House officials disapproved as well.

Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, chairman of the National Governors’ Association, said several people had “expressed regret that the Secretary was somewhat flip in his remarks.”

“I thought Mr. Hunt and Mr. Mabus handled themselves well,” he said. “I think Secretary Bennett went overboard.”

Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States and a summit observer, said he was not surprised by Mr. Bennett’s remarks--given his outspoken record as Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration.

“He’s made a career of slashing,” Mr. Newman said. “This is a group of people trying to build, and he is not the person to do it.”

Many summit participants and observers said the Bennett session and subsequent remarks represented the low point of the summit.

The tone in the other closed sessions, some of which were also marked by discussions of the need for more federal funding, was more constructive than destructive, they said.

Still, the Bennett session was not the only sign of discord among summit participants.

In a memo circulated before the meeting, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a chief planner of the event, complained about the White House’s insistence that gubernatorial staff members be barred from the small, issue-oriented sessions.

Mr. Clinton also complained that the White House had decided to permit only Administration aides to prepare a summary of the closed discussions.

At the last moment, the White House did relent and allowed the governors to bring a note-taker to the sessions.

The White House did not budge, however, on allowing the press to attend the sessions, a decision Mr. Clinton also said he disagreed with.

One governor’s aide said he wondered whether the White House strategy of keeping the governors, their aides, and the press apart was an attempt to “divide and conquer.”

Planning for the historic meeting not only pitted governors against the White House, but also prompted some divisions among the governors themselves.

In an interview before the summit, Gov. Garrey E. Carruthers of New Mexico, chairman of the Education Commission of the States,4said, “There has been a lot of political intrigue along the way.”

“I think it is highly unusual that a couple of Democratic governors have taken it upon themselves to release position papers while most of the Republican governors have shown a great deal of restraint,” the Republican Mr. Carruthers said. “It suggests to me that there is a jockeying for position of leadership at the education summit.”

Mr. Carruthers also said he saw the press conference by Congressional Democrats earlier this month as an attempt to “pre-empt the President.”

But in the end, summit observers said, the political maneuvering and the meeting’s format had little effect on the substance of the final summit agreement.

The document was hammered out late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning at the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville by Mr. Clinton; Mr. Branstad; Gov. Carroll A. Campbell of South Carolina; Roger B. Porter, Mr. Bush’s domestic-policy adviser; and John Sununu, the White House chief of staff.

Mr. Clinton said that a first draft was circulated to the governors about 2 A.M. Thursday and that another followed shortly after sunrise.

Given the amount of political posturing that occurred before and during the summit, and given the meeting’s shaky first session, many governors expressed some surprise that, in the end, the web of consensus survived.

Said Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey: “It is amazing the number of controversial things we were finally able to agree on.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 1989 edition of Education Week as Bickering Exposes the Frailty of Summit’s Consensus


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