On the Road Again: Travels With Bennett

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Staff Writer Julie Miller hit the road to cover Secretary Bennett's activities on recent trips to California and Florida. Following is her account:

Thursday, 8 p.m.; the Mariott
Crocker Center Hotel,

Boca Raton, Fla.

By the time his small entourage sweeps in, about a hundred people have arrived at the state Republican Party's $50-a-head reception featuring Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who is beginning a six-day excursion in Florida.

Mr. Bennett is introduced as "the John Wayne of education,'' but he begins by talking about something else.

"The freedom fighters are on my mind,'' he says, referring to the Nicaraguan rebels and an upcoming vote on contra aid.

Mr. Bennett has gathered a trove of tales in his travels, and employs at least one proven crowd-pleaser in every "stump speech.'' When the audience is nonpartisan, he usually selects an anecdote about public-school students. But when the audience is Republican, he often uses a story he was told during a visit last year to Nicaragua.

A Nicaraguan child was assigned to write a paper about three people who had done great things for mankind, Mr. Bennett says. He wrote about Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, and Jesus Christ, but received no credit because "in the new Nicaragua, the only correct answers are Lenin, Marx, and Engels.''

"This is not a system of education, it's a system of indoctrination,'' the Secretary says.

He says another Nicaraguan told him "the man on the street in Nicaragua believes that policy is created in Moscow, developed in Havana, and implemented in Managua.''

"I'm very pleased that the Republicans have reclaimed education as an issue,'' he says next, adding that "we must ask how we can improve without spending more money.''

"The problem is that we need to spend more wisely,'' he argues, calling for more accountability for educators and pay scales that reflect results. "There are worse penalties for serving a single rotten hamburger than for giving a hundred children a rotten education.''

In response to questions, Mr. Bennett says he supports the controversial Paterson, N.J., principal Joe Clark, tough anti-drug policies, cracking down on student-loan defaulters, and parental choice.

"I believe in public schools,'' he says, "but if they are failing, we should give parents another choice.''

"Bill Bennett's very popular down here,'' says John Fabrega, a state party official, commenting on the audience's favorable response.

Officials in southern California said much the same thing when Mr. Bennett visited there in December.

"For their thousand dollars, they get access to high-level people in the Administration, like Bill Bennett,'' said Joe Irvin, a state Republican official, at a Los Angeles luncheon for faithful contributors. "That's the way it is in politics.''

"He did very well for us,'' added Richard Warmuth, the party's special-events coordinator, commenting on the turnout.

Mr. Bennett touched on many of the same topics in Los Angeles that he addressed in Boca Raton, and the response was similar.

Particularly impressed was a row of well-dressed women, who nodded and exclaimed, "Exactly right!'' throughout his speech.

"I think he's wonderful,'' said one. "He's an excellent speaker, and a very pragmatic person who sees things as they are. I don't know what he thinks about it, but I would like to see him run for something.''

8:45 a.m. Friday; the Boca Raton
Hotel and Club.

Thousands of Soap and Detergent Association members are eating breakfast in the ballroom of the swank resort as the morning's scheduled speaker arrives.

"They forged a division out of glycerine and fatty-acid products, and made it what it is today,'' an association official is saying, presenting a service award before he introduces Mr. Bennett.

There's a lot of ground to cover between fatty acids and education. But the Secretary likes to carry his message outside the education community, and his self-described conservatism plays almost as well here as it did at the previous night's Republican reception.

"Everybody has a child, or knows a child. Or in Washington, where I come from, is a child,'' he says, using a favorite opening.

"I've seen the American child, and he can be educated,'' Mr. Bennett says, seguing into an anecdote.

The story concerns a 3rd grader at a Raleigh, N.C., school Mr. Bennett visited in 1985. The child asked him whether it was true that Reagan Administration officials ate jelly beans when they got together for meetings "in the cupboard.''

Yes, it is true that Mr. Reagan passes jelly beans to his Cabinet members, Mr. Bennett said. "And I've had a few.''

"You've had more than a few,'' the child told Mr. Bennett, who is 6'2'' and not lean.

"He knows he has a right to take a shot at the Secretary of Education. That's what America is all about,'' Mr. Bennett tells the detergent makers as the laughter dies down. He suggests that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev should have been taken to some elementary schools.

In a similar vein, Mr. Bennett tells the conventioneers that if he could eliminate an impediment to education, he would choose puberty.

But he also talks more seriously about the characteristics of good schools and about exemplary schools he has visited; he reiterates his support for merit pay and more accountability for educators, again turning to the "rotten hamburger'' quip.

And with that, Mr. Bennett leaves with his entourage, which this time includes Bruce M. Carnes, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget and evaluation, as well as the Secretary's bodyguard and regional ED officials.

Vince Maiorany, the bodyguard, is the one permanent fixture in Mr. Bennett's retinue. The former District of Columbia police officer travels in advance of the Secretary to make preparations and accompanies him on every trip.

He is actually shorter than Mr. Bennett, but he is armed and a formidable presence. He is taciturn, and surveys unfamiliar faces with professional suspicion.

"There have been a few incidents, but nothing we couldn't handle,'' is all Mr. Maiorany will volunteer about his work.

He says he began working for the Education Department part time when Terrel H. Bell was Secretary, as one of several security men on call. Mr. Bennett began with the same system, Mr. Maiorany says, but came to use his services exclusively.

"I know how he wants things done. He likes continuity on the road,'' Mr. Maiorany says.

He admiringly terms Mr. Bennett "really dedicated,'' adding that "I've seen a lot of places.''

12:45 a.m.; Cardinal Gibbons
High School, Fort Lauderdale.

Mr. Bennett's star status is apparent as the entourage pulls into the parking lot.

The moment he emerges from his maroon Lincoln Town Car, he is surrounded by reporters, photographers, and beaming school officials.

The officials and Representative E. Clay Shaw, the local Republican Congressman, pose for pictures with the Secretary.

Then the entire crowd, at least 30 strong, trails behind as Mr. Bennett is led past welcoming banners to the classroom of Sister Laverne Farrell. Reporters and onlookers jockey for position around rows of desks as students gape at the spectacle.

As a handful of television cameras roll, Mr. Bennett attempts, with minimal success, to engage the obviously nervous students in a discussion about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Having seen notes about the abolition movement on a blackboard, Mr. Bennett concentrates on the way the rival politicians approached the issue of slavery.

"Lincoln said slavery was immoral,'' Mr. Bennett says. "You can't make sense of democracy, of sovereignty by the people, without admitting the wrongness of slavery.''

"What is the basic premise of democracy that bars slavery?'' he asks, and a student answers correctly: "All men are created equal.''

Then Mr. Bennett changes tactics, asking as he usually does during school visits: "What makes this a good school?''

"Students want to learn.''

"Teachers take their subjects seriously.''

"Is discipline strong?'' he asks.

The students respond affirmatively, but do not elaborate.

"I think the cameras intimidated them,'' the Rev. Joseph Kershner, the school's principal, remarks as the cortege files out.

Next up is a tour of the facilities. The crowd flows upstairs and downstairs, past classrooms and athletic fields.

Mr. Bennett's visit ends in the school auditorium, where the students give him a standing ovation.

Representative Shaw praises the school briefly and introduces the Secretary, who does the same and talks about what makes a school effective.

"As Tolstoy said, all happy families are alike,'' he says. "The same is true of good schools.''

Students give Mr. Bennett token gifts, a ritual at school visits. He appears to be accumulating one of the nation's largest collections of too-small tee shirts and sweatshirts.

2 p.m.; Boyd Anderson High
School, Ft. Lauderdale.

There is time only for a brief look at the empty school, whose students are on vacation, before a forum with parents.

School officials speak first, highlighting programs that receive federal aid. Then Mr. Shaw introduces the Secretary, who speaks very briefly before taking questions.

Most questions are deferential, allowing Mr. Bennett to plug the Education Department's AIDS booklet and get in a pitch for character education.

The audience applauds as he quotes the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Lays an Egg, which is about an elephant who is rewarded for his fidelity: "He meant what he said and he said what he meant. An elephant's faithful 100 percent.''

The only confrontational question comes from a teen-ager, who reads a statement critical of the principal Joe Clark. She asks Mr. Bennett why he does not "tell us about principals who operate according to democratic principles.''

"Thank you for your spontaneous question,'' the Secretary says testily, before answering that extreme methods are sometimes necessary.

At a news conference in another room, reporters asks him for his views on a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding censorship of a student newspaper, on magnet schools, and on school-based day care.

While Mr. Bennett is often challenged in Washington, where he frequently speaks to reporters and legislators, he is met on the road mostly with deference and applause.

His aides confirm that the exceptions to that rule tend to be college students and especially teachers' union activists, who criticize Mr. Bennett's proposals to cut the federal education budget--although he has backed away from that stance this year.

Such a protest occurred in December when he visited Los Angeles's Garfield High School, where the calculus teacher Jaime Escalante works the instructional magic portrayed in the new movie "Stand and Deliver.''

Mr. Bennett sat in on one of Mr. Escalante's classes, watching the students perform impressively, then lauded the inner-city school's success at a meeting for parents and staff. Principal Maria Tostado interpreted for Spanish-speaking parents.

"This is indeed the American dream,'' Mr. Bennett said. "It's particularly important for what it says for the Hispanic children of America, about what is possible for them.''

Then members of United Teachers-Los Angeles began asking about budget cuts, and Mr. Bennett's smile disappeared.

He said the department did not ask for a cut this year, the federal contribution to education spending is small, and the "problem isn't that we don't spend enough, but that we don't spend it well enough.''

The teachers persisted.

"I find it a little difficult to accept that you come to praise this program while you want to eliminate the math and science [grant] program,'' Brian Wallace said.

"It's too bad that on a day to honor Garfield, someone has to put kitty litter in the punch bowl,'' Mr. Bennett snapped, contending that the figures the teachers cited were incorrect.

Jose Oyozco, a teaching assistant, stood up.

"I work with the 90 percent of the kids here who are illiterate, who don't know who you are,'' he said angrily. "That's the voice you should hear, not the 1 percent who are going to Wellesley.''

Mr. Bennett offered several defenses, saying that Garfield students were statistically above average.

"If you visit failures, people ask why you don't see kids who are doing well,'' he said next, adding that he "spends a lot of time on the problems of disadvantaged kids.''

Besides, Mr. Bennett said, "the nationally recognized success of some students has an effect on the others.''

The Secretary left, and Mr. Escalante sped across the room to argue with Mr. Oyozco. Several parents took sides.

"Somebody's always got to spoil it,'' Mr. Bennett muttered as he exited.

3:15 p.m.; Ft. Lauderdale.

Mr. Bennett hustles back to his car because he has exactly two hours and 15 minutes to travel across the state to Tallahassee, where he is scheduled to attend a fundraiser for U.S. Representative Connie Mack.

Mr. Mack is running for a vacant Senate seat, and his campaign picked up the cost of flying Mr. Bennett to the event in a private plane. The same plane flies him from there to Naples, to spend the weekend with his family before resuming official appearances on Monday.

Although the members of Mr. Bennett's entourage are all affected by a government-wide ceiling on reimbursable hotel rates, they are able to spend the weekend at the lush new Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Naples.

The Secretary addresses Collier County Republicans there on Monday, and the party picks up the excess expenses.

"I feel no obligation to not enjoy Florida,'' Mr. Bennett tells reporters who ask if he is there on vacation.

But Mr. Carnes claims he got his sunburn doing paperwork by the pool, and two members of the entourage says they had to "sneak food upstairs'' because their expense accounts would not accommodate the Ritz-Carlton's restaurants.

Noon, Monday; the Cape Coral
Inn and Country Club.

The Southwest Florida Chamber of Commerce has invited local educators to attend its meeting, and the opening prayer asks God to "help us further education.''

Mr. Bennett talks about the contras again, saying that contra aid was the issue that finally made him join the Republican Party. He delivers the line about the origin of Nicaraguan policy, and the jellybean anecdote.

He talks again about accountability and effective schools, and says he plans to propose legislation that would encourage states to adopt merit-pay systems.

"Excellence makes one feel good about the worth of the world,'' he says, quoting George Eliot.

Mr. Bennett mentions Garfield High School as an example of excellence, and says he has recommended Mr. Escalante for a medal, "because he's saving lives and he is an American hero.''

He receives a standing ovation, and departs for a brief news conference. One reporter asks if he is interested in a Vice Presidential nomination.

"If the call comes, I'll certainly pick up the phone, but I won't be waiting by the phone,'' Mr. Bennett says. "I certainly enjoy public life, and I'd like to get back into public life, but probably later rather than sooner.''

7:30 p.m.; the Ritz Carlton Hotel,

The Collier County Republicans have chosen Mr. Bennett as the featured attraction at their biggest fundraiser, the Lincoln Day dinner.

Before dinner, Mr. Bennett and his wife, Elayne, drink champagne and mingle with guests invited to a "VIP reception'' for especially generous party supporters, as a hired photographer snaps away.

The meal is as deluxe as the surroundings, from the artfully arranged exotic vegetables in the salad to the checkered, chocolate-covered mousse served for dessert, and is accompanied by piano music.

Mr. Bennett is preceded by a Lincoln imitator, who recites anecdotes from the President's life, and by Mr. Mack, who introduces a Russian man he has assisted in his quest to be reunited with his family.

The Secretary begins by talking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates in much the same terms he used the previous day at Cardinal Gibbons High School.

"To be identified with principle is to be conservative,'' he says. "No one has gone to hell for being conservative.''

Mr. Bennett then quotes Lincoln: "As a nation of free men, we live forever or die by suicide.''

He urges his party to stand behind "the defense of the West,'' and particularly the contras. "It's an involvment we cannot ignore,'' he says.

"This party has got the high road,'' Mr. Bennett says, explaining why he became a Republican. "My Democratic party was the party of John F. Kennedy, who said, 'We will bear any burden, pay any price. Soviet control of this hemisphere cannot be negotiated.'''

"After $250 billion in social programs, our children are worse off,'' he says, addressing the other issue he calls on the party to champion: "the nurture and protection of our children.''

"We have neglected the most important tool we have for the raising of children. The family is the original department of health, education, and welfare,'' Mr. Bennett says.

He ends by urging parents to teach their children the difference between democracy and totalitarianism. One good way to tell is the "gates test,'' he says: "When you open the gates, which way do the people run, in or out?''

"One way of suicide is to not tell our children what it is we have,'' Mr. Bennett concludes, beaming in response to the audience's enthusiastic applause.

Vol. 07, Issue 29

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