A funny thing has happened since William J. Bennett became Secretary of Education in 1985: The head of a small agency President Reagan had marked for extinction has become one of his most visible Cabinet members.
“Certainly, what Bill has done as Secretary of Education is raise the profile of the position,’' says Republican Party Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. “He’s raising issues that Democrats and Independents and Republicans have to meet and discuss. It’s not only helpful to the Republican Party, it’s helpful to the whole system.’'
Mr. Bennett makes no secret of the fact that he enjoys using his post as a “bully pulpit.’' He has devoted a great deal of time and energy to public speechmaking, and commands headlines by making controversial statements on a variety of topics, including some connected only tangentially, if at all, with education.
He has criticized fellow Republicans for not supporting President Reagan more forcefully amid the Iran-contra revelations. And he played a key role in convincing Douglas H. Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court nominee last fall who admitted to having smoked marijuana, to withdraw from consideration.
Some observers tout Mr. Bennett as a rising star in the Republican Party, crediting him with recasting education as a Republican issue and serving as a strong voice on a variety of subjects, from AIDS to contra aid.
But his critics say he has overstepped the bounds of his office and neglected its traditional constituency in favor of self-promotion and service as an itinerant preacher of the conservative gospel.
“I think he’s done a very good job of keeping himself on the front page, but when you look at what he has done to improve education, the results are very slim,’' says Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association and one of the Secretary’s favorite targets.
‘That’s Where Education Is’
Mr. Bennett’s platform is less like a pulpit than a traveling revival, in which he carries his message across the country to Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, and Republican groups, as well as to schools and their employees.
Mr. Bennett spent 73 days in 1986 and 77 days in 1987 on the road, according to records supplied by his office. Allowing for vacations, holidays, and weekends, that represents almost a third of his working days.
“That’s where education is, out there in America,’' Mr. Bennett said in a recent interview. “I am a public servant. I work for the American people, and it’s good for me to see them from time to time, to tell them what I think and hear what they think.’'
“Particularly in the area of education, unlike defense, the real work is going on outside the Beltway, not inside the Beltway,’' he said. “That’s where the money is being spent, that’s where the decisions are being made.’'
Reaching Other Audiences
But Mr. Bennett’s travels do not always take him to the people making those decisions.
He makes almost as many speeches before audiences external to education as he does at schools, colleges, and education associations. Often, Mr. Bennett schedules one school visit amid a a half-dozen political and other non-education events.
On a California excursion this winter, for example, the Secretary attended two Republican fundraisers, met with local journalists, and visited a high school. The visit to the high school, the principal confirmed, was arranged after the political functions were scheduled.
A month later, in Florida, Mr. Bennett visited two schools, but also attended three political gatherings and spoke to two business organizations. An invitation from the Soap and Detergent Association was the impetus for the trip.
Mr. Bennett’s aides say that is not atypical, and that trips are driven by non-education events at least as often as by education-oriented meetings.
“I pushed him to go towards a big, general audience,’' says Mr. Bennett’s press secretary, Loye W. Miller. “Rotary clubs are golden, the leadership of the community, real people, people who either have kids in school or did have and are a good, typical slice of the American electorate.’'
According to records supplied by Mr. Bennett’s office, he visited 75 schools and 50 higher-education institutions from 1985 through 1987, and spoke to 40 local and national organizations with an education focus.
During that same period, he spoke at 63 Republican Party functions, including 15 appearances on behalf of specific candidates for office. He also spoke to 52 local business and civic organizations and about 20 miscellaneous gatherings, ranging from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, to Dallas Right to Life, to a “Sportscasters of the Year’’ dinner.
“They’re Americans. They’re parents. They’re taxpayers,’' Mr. Bennett says. “It’s not like I have to drag a Chamber of Commerce audience or a Soap and Detergent Association audience kicking and screaming to my topic. They’re interested.’'
“I think I’m giving [the taxpayers] a more direct return than a lot of people,’' he says. “They see what I think, what I recommend, and they can take it back and apply it to their own schools. They get a discussion, and the life of America is ideas.’'
Even some who disagree with him give Mr. Bennett high marks for keeping education in the public eye.
“I know this is unconventional among Democrats, but I think that his use of his office has, on balance, sharpened the debate,’' says Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. “A lot of what he has said in calling for greater accountability has been a net plus.’'
“I don’t think there’s any question that public support for higher teacher salaries has to do with feeling that there will be more accountability,’' says Governor Clinton, who has been one of the country’s most active state leaders on education issues. “That’s an argument for continuing to have a gadfly in the bully pulpit.’'
“In terms of developing a vision of what the goals and purposes of education are, he’s been quite successful, especially as regards the issues of content and character,’' says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“Everybody has something to do with education, so I think it’s quite appropriate to get business groups, parent groups aware of the problems of education,’' he says.
‘A Certain Naivete’
But many education advocates say they do not think education has benefited from Mr. Bennett’s visibility.
“What does he do besides talk?’' Ms. Futrell asks. “Does he work with community groups and education groups, and say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about the problems of education?’''
“I don’t think what education needs is stacks and stacks of criticism,’' comments Shirley M. Hufstedtler, who was the first Secretary of Education. “What it needs is an appreciation of how difficult the issues are, that there is no quick fix, how tough the job of a teacher is, and how little we reward those who do it.’'
“I don’t think the public appreciation of these issues has improved,’' she says.
Mr. Bennett has shown “a certain naivete’’ about the problems of education, according to Mr. Shanker.
“I don’t think many people would disagree that kids should learn math and science,’' he says. “The question is, how do you get those who have never learned it to learn it? There was no golden age. In 1940, 80 percent of students never graduated from high school.’'
“There are schools that have all the traits Mr. Bennett is talking about and kids still aren’t learning there,’' Mr. Shanker asserts.
And the AFT’spresident concurs with other education advocates that the Secretary’s direct attacks on the education community have been counterproductive.
“He is basically hostile to educators and educational institutions. You can just feel it and see it,’' Mr. Shanker argues. “It’s very difficult for anyone to be secretary of labor if they are anti-union or secretary of commerce if they are anti-business or secretary of defense if they are anti-military.’'
“It’s fine to use the office as a bully pulpit and to be critical when criticism is warranted,’' says Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education. “But the way he draws attention to the public debate has not been well-informed for the most part, and has been a polemic--as distinct from dialogue or reasoned commentary. It’s headline-grabbing.’'
“Bennett has set himself up in opposition to what he believes to be the education establishment, and said, ‘I don’t work for them, I work for the American people,’'' Mr. Atwell says. “That’s nice, but I think it’s more effective to work through and with the establishment in any field to bring about change.’'
‘Enormous Education Needs’
Critics of the Secretary also point to areas in which they believe he has been remiss as the nation’s top education official.
“Obviously, our styles are different--I believed my mission to be different than what he believes it to be,’' Ms. Hufstedtler says. “As far as trying to create cooperation between public and private education and the federal and state governments, I don’t think he’s tried to do that.’'
“The needs are so enormous and the resources so hard to get, it is important to stop as much as possible the antagonism between government and the parts of the education system,’' she concludes.
Several observers, noting that almost all Mr. Bennett’s legislative proposals have been soundly rejected, say he should have worked more pragmatically to build credibility with the Congress.
Others say Mr. Bennett’s commitment to civil rights is insufficient. “This ought to be a major federal commitment, and it’s one on which Mr. Bennett has been very soft,’' according to Mr. Shanker.
“He is, in my opinion, looking for greater glory,’' says Ms. Futrell. “He is using the office for self-promotion. When he gets involved in a nomination and the contra issue and gets into dropping bombs on South America because of drug problems, what message is he sending? It’s ‘I’m well-versed on other topics.’''
“Since when is it against the law for a Cabinet officer to promote himself?’' counters Mr. Miller, the Secretary’s spokesman. “When Bennett promotes himself, his department and education in general go along for the ride.’'
Mr. Bennett argues that he has the right and duty to speak up for the Administration’s interests.
“I think some of my colleagues are too silent on some issues,’' the Secretary said in a meeting last year with journalists. “This may be my best job ever in public life. It’s my shot, and I’m going to take it.’'
“The President is not upset, and that’s really the only person in the Administration that means anything to me.’'
An Irate Senator
Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Republican of Connecticut, is among those who think Mr. Bennett has overstepped the bounds of his territory.
“Having been through Secretary Bennett’s role as Surgeon General, now apparently he’s Secretary of State,’' the Senator said last fall of the Secretary’s trip to Nicaragua and his controversial statements about AIDS carriers.
Mr. Weicker, a longtime critic of Mr. Bennett’s travels and the ranking Republican on the appropriations panel with jurisdiction over the Education Department, has sought for the past two years to reduce the Secretary’s travel budget.
In 1986, angered by an ED proposal to reduce spending on travel by civil-rights investigators and increase Mr. Bennett’s budget, Mr. Weicker said he “would be more impressed if the Secretary took care of the people who needed to be taken care of, rather than taking care of himself.’'
“I don’t think the taxpayers appreciate that at all,’' he told Mr. Bennett at a hearing.
A spokesman for the Senator said last week that he declined to be interviewed on the subject until the appropriations panel holds its hearings on the 1989 budget in May, when Mr. Weicker is likely to renew objections to Mr. Bennett’s use of his time and the government’s money.
Travel Funding Elusive
However, because travel for all Education Department officials is included in one line item, along with a budget for supplies and salaries, there is effectively no way the Congress can force a reduction in Mr. Bennett’s travel allocation, even if the “departmental management’’ item is cut, as it has been in some years.
Department officials estimate for their own purposes the amount the Secretary and his staff will spend on travel, but funds can be switched from one category to another.
“It never mattered to us what the budget was,’' says Bruce M. Carnes, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget and evaluation.
According to department officials, the amount allocated for travel by Mr. Bennett and his staff was reduced after the appropriations process only once, for fiscal 1987.
For fiscal 1988, when E.D. also received less than requested for “departmental management,’' the office’s travel budget was actually increased $50,000 from the $90,000 the department had earmarked in an internal estimate made for its 1988 budget proposal.
Much of the money is spent by other officials in the Secretary’s office who travel to promote such programs as Mr. Bennett’s anti-drug crusade.
Mr. Bennett himself spent $36,100 on official travel in fiscal 1987, up from $24,100 in 1986.
By comparison, his predecessor, Terrel H. Bell, spent $12,200 on travel in 1984, his last full year in office.
But the total cost is higher, as those figures do not include expenses of aides who accompanied either Mr. Bennett or Mr. Bell.
Travel expenses for Mr. Bennett’s bodyguard run as high or higher than the Secretary’s, according to Mr. Carnes.
And the official totals do not reflect expenses picked up by the Republican Party.
If the Secretary makes a trip entirely for partisan political purposes, Administration policy requires the party to pay for it. When a trip involves both official functions and Republican events, the cost is prorated according to the number of hours the Secretary spends at each activity.
Because Mr. Bennett’s political activities vastly outstrip Mr. Bell’s, the disparity in the actual cost of their travel--although not the cost to the taxpayer--is much greater than expenditure records show.
Mr. Bell says that almost all his travel was to education conferences or connected with disseminating the findings of A Nation at Risk. He appeared at very few political events, he says.
“I think I did three or four over the years,’' he recalls. “Mr. Bennett would be greatly in demand by the conservatives, and obviously, I wasn’t.’'
Ms. Hufstedtler says she did a great deal of traveling during her brief tenure to promote the brand-new department, and she made political appearances on behalf of former President Jimmy Carter. But she did not appear at party fundraisers and spoke only before education organizations.
A survey of federal agencies suggests that Mr. Bennett travels more than some comparable Administration officials, but less than others.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Otis R. Bowen, who oversees a much larger agency, spent only $5,700 on 16 trips in fiscal 1987, when Mr. Bennett spent $36,000.
Samuel R. Pierce, who heads the Department of Housing and Urban Development, spent about $4,900 in 33 days of travel that year.
Their spokesmen say they make very few political appearances and virtually no appearances before general audiences.
While Secretary of Agriculture Richard E. Lyng spent more days on the road than did Mr. Bennett in 1986 and 1987, he made a third as many political appearances, and almost all were on behalf of specific candidates.
“I can’t remember him ever addressing a group unless it had an agriculture focus,’' says a spokesman, Betty Stern.
Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel travels about 100 days a year and budgeted $100,000 for official travel in 1988, says his spokesman, David Prosperi. Mr. Hodel occasionally speaks to a general audience and he makes at least as many political appearances as Mr. Bennett, according to Mr. Prosperi.
“They’re definitely two of the top draws,’' he says.
Several local Republican officials say former Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth H. Dole was also quite popular as a speaker, but a department spokesman failed to supply details.
‘Willing To Appear’
Mr. Fahrenkopf confirms that Mr. Bennett is one of the most sought-after Administration officials.
“He’s a very articulate individual who does a marvelous job in public speaking,’' the party chairman says. “But you also have to tie that in with [the fact that] most Republicans--and not just Republicans, I think he’s also in great demand with service clubs and others--are always concerned about education.’'
Local Republican officials who have hosted Mr. Bennett also say he is a big draw.
“He is, I believe, one of the most-traveled Cabinet secretaries, and from our standpoint, one of those who is most willing to appear at these sorts of events,’' says John Fabrega, an official of the Florida Republican Party.
Many local officials who have hosted Mr. Bennett say they asked him to speak because he was already planning a trip to their area. But they also agree that he is a big draw for them because of his visibility in the media.
“They’ve heard I might say something interesting or controversial,’' Mr. Bennett says. “I think I have an advantage in that people are interested in the topic, but I also don’t go there with a speech that’s 12 pages, written by somebody else, which I’m reading the second time. I go and talk. I like direct talk and stories and sharing my experience, putting it up against theirs.’'
In addition to local appearances, Mr. Bennett has also been asked to speak at several large, regional Republican Party gatherings, such as a recent weekend retreat for Republican Congressmen, where he spoke on “Education Reform and the 1988 Election.’'
Some observers say Mr. Bennett’s political activity and his propensity for speaking up on non-education topics constitute a campaign to position himself for a run at elected office.
“We’ve said for some time that he is positioning himsef to say to people, ‘I am available for higher office or for a different position,’'' Ms. Futrell says.
Several conservative political columnists have mentioned Mr. Bennett as a potential political candidate--even, possibly, a Presidential candidate--and speculation on his political future has been grist for the Washington rumor mill.
At a Senate-House conference last year on the pending trade bill, Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, complained that a certain Bennett proposal would not take effect until 1992, adding, “I don’t know if he still intends to be Secretary then.’'
“No, no. Everybody knows he wants to be President,’' replied Senator Robert T. Stafford, Republican of Vermont, evoking bipartisan laughter.
“I’ve never talked to him about whether he would seek political office, but I think he certainly has the tools,’' Mr. Fahrenkopf says. “He has the intellect, he’s very articulate, and education is a critical issue.’'
“There’s no question that people in the Republican Party--and I happen to be one of them--think Bill Bennett is a man of tremendous talent and hope he would give serious consideration to seeking public office,’' he adds. “I think he would be a formidable candidate.’'
Mr. Bennett has said that he might be interested in a governorship or a Senate seat, and that he would consider a Vice Presidential nomination if he were offered one.
But he insists that his activities as Secretary are not driven by a desire to run for office and that he makes political appearances purely to help the party.
“The success of the Republican Party is tied to the future success of this country,’' he says.
“My name recognition is already pretty good,’' he adds. “If you sat down and decided that what you wanted is name recognition, what you would do is to maximize your times on television, not travel around the country, doing local things. So that’s not the objective.’'
But Mr. Bennett’s travels include many local press conferences and interviews, and often land him a spot on the evening news and coverage in local newspapers. His travel records show that he gave about 50 interviews to local media between 1985 and 1987.
Later? Or Sooner?
But several officials close to the Secretary say they do not think he would accept the severe limits elected office would place on his privacy and the demands it would make on his time.
And although he is well received by local audiences, Mr. Bennett does not appear to be in his element when called upon to mingle with a crowd. He tends to make a quick exit after he has delivered his speech.
“Small talk I’m not good at. Never have been,’' Mr. Bennett says. “I’m always saying to my host or hostess, ‘Can we start? Can we start?’''
“Some [events] are really a pleasure,’' he says, and “some turn out to be a pain, because people are grabbing at you and pulling at you and having your picture taken, and when you get up to give your remarks, you’re blind.’'
But Mr. Bennett clearly enjoys the limelight.
“People ask me, ‘How can you stand the criticism?’ But I really enjoy my job. The truth is, it’s a thrill,’' he says. “The opportunity to have a conversation with the American people about things that matter to them is an extraordinary opportunity.’'
“I certainly enjoy public life, and I’d like to get back into public life,’' the Secretary muses. “But probably later than sooner.’'
A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 1988 edition of Education Week as Man on the Move