Radio talk-show host, former Cabinet secretary, and future vice president William J. Bennett is author of a two-volume history of the United States — America, the Last Best Hope — just recently boxed up and packaged with a Ronald Reagan tribute CD. Just in time for Christmas, as they say. Bennett offers his pitch for the books, as well as thoughts on reading in America, 2008, and Pat Buchanan, in an NRO interview.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: I’ve bought a number of Bill Bennett books over the years. Big ones even. What’s so special about this boxed set?
William J. Bennett: Thank you! What’s special here is the range and depth, in one box, for a good price. You get pretty much all of American history, from Christopher Columbus to the fall of the Berlin Wall and, more importantly, you get it in an exciting and fair way: Not boring, not one sided — those were my twin goals.
Our history is full of what the inscription atop the National Archives says: “Glory and Romance.” I try to reconvey that in Last Best Hope. There’s too much tendentiousness in the telling of our story, the greatest political story ever told. We don’t need to be ashamed and we don’t need to censor — or censure.
AND, in addition to all that, you get a really cool CD commemorating the life and politics of Ronald Wilson Reagan — I say “really cool,” because it’s Ronald Reagan’s favorite voice: the voice of Americans and those who served them — people who called my radio show the week Reagan died to share what was important to them about the man, people from mourners in California to immigrants to those who served him like Jeane Kirkpatrick (who gives us what must be one of her last — if not her last — interviews ever).
Lopez: But you couldn’t do it in one book? I’m busy! Bennett: I know, I know, I run against the Gettysburg address tradition….but, then again, I’m not Lincoln. What will gratify, though, is that you don’t have to do this in one sitting, or one week, and I think the book lasts — like the Book of Virtues, it’s not going to be outdated by the Political Science Quarterly or John DiIulio’s latest research, this set has a true shelf life.
Lopez: In your biased opinion, who is it the perfect gift for? Is it me? Is it kids? Is it all of the above? Bennett: It’s for anyone, but you want to know who I really wrote it for? People who want to fall in love with their country all over again by simply knowing about her. There are several audiences here: those who never received a good education in the history of America, those who have recently come here, those that want a refresher course, and those who want not be lectured to in any of this. But to know her is to love her and that’s the audience, those who want to fall in love with their country all over again and to know why others fall in love with her every day.
Lopez: It’s a wonder anyone reads books anymore, isn’t it? With so much competing for their time? With so much that is shorter and quicker and flashier? As an educator and historian and, obviously, book author, does that worry you? Bennett: You bet. And I confess to being part of the problem. I used to read a lot more than I do now. Ironically, though, I also think a lot more gets published than used to, a lot more trash, a lot more that never would have been published when we were less distracted in the first place. But a lot of great pieces, great long pieces, arise in greater proliferation in great magazines like yours that seem to consume more time…..so maybe we’re reading wider and not deeper? Maybe, I put a question mark on that.
You noticed, I’m sure, the new NEA study. It’s not encouraging: we’re actually spending less money buying books and less time reading them. That’s not good and maybe it is a result of some kind of literary Gresham’s law: too many bad ones pushing too many good ones out. I want to think on that some more.
Lopez: If I’m a teacher, how could I incorporate the books in my classroom? Bennett: A couple of ways. First, I have a whole team, TEAM HOPE, working to get Last Best Hope into the classroom. (Link here) I encourage history teachers to check the project out, we’d love to help them. Second, Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review, who is also trying to reverse bad American history literacy trends, has found that high school students are rarely expected to read a complete history book. Teachers should take note, and assign more I think — because there is now an actual canon of non-boring American history books where students can actually engage in our rip roaring story: McCullough has authored these kinds of books, so has Beschloss and Barone, I’d like to add my books to that list as well but I invite all of your readers to decide.
Lopez: Your boxed set includes a Ronald Reagan tribute CD. Do you worry you’re contributing to conservatives living in the past, waiting for Reagan resurrected to appear as their political savior? Bennett: Oh, that will never happen. In fact I think some callers and I address the whole issue of ‘another Reagan’ on the CD. Here’s why I don’t worry: a) It’s simply factually impossible to have another Reagan in spirit or body. b) I’ve found that by and large people have come to terms with this. c) BUT: as touchstones go, one could emulate worse, in fact I do encourage learning more from his example — not only his ideological example but his rhetorical and personal example as well. There’s a lot to learn from Reagan, and one can learn from a teacher without necessarily wanting to become a carbon copy of that teacher — that’s what the best students do. And Reagan is the best of teachers. In the end, Reagan, himself, would instruct: don’t wait, don’t pine, tomorrow is a new day.
Lopez: I know you’re not endorsing anyone in the primaries, but do you hear things that best exude “America, the Last Best Hope”? Bennett: Sure. Sure I do. And you’ve put your finger on something important — the hope, people need to have that, be lead with that. There’s a reason Pat Buchanan could never be the nominee, to fixated on the negatives and the downsides, the impossible. Leaders like Lincoln (who coined the phrase) and the Roosevelts and Kennedy and Reagan talked about the possible, the upsides, what we could do. Morning in America is an important concept, we’re about dawn in this country, not dusk. We’re about hope, not hopelessness.
Lopez: Have the Democrats’ approach toward Iraq suggested they don’t believe that we are the Last Best Hope? Bennett: I can’t improve on the last happy political warrior I know in the Democratic party, Joe Lieberman: “Democrats have remained emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq.”
He’s right, and what kind of place is that to be in this country? What kind of place is that to be in leading? In winning friends and allies and confounding enemies? It’s no place to be.
Lopez: Would a pro-choice presidential nominee be catastrophic to the Republican party?
Bennett: Kathryn, nice try! Nice try — you sure you don’t want to spar with my brother?
Serious answer: One could be individually pro-choice, so long as they respected and said they respected the platform of our party for purposes of public policy. They could say, for example, “I am not pro-life, I’m personally pro-choice. But, I respect the hard fought platform of our party, it was not written by me, it is thus not for me to change. And if I am your nominee, it will be as a nominee with that platform, I will respect it, that would be my duty.” And then I think the candidate would need to lay out a few policies that would show respect for the platform of our party on those issues. A pro-choice candidate who took pro-choice positions wouldn’t be catastrophic to the party because he or she could not be the nominee of our party.
Lopez: Did you ever think you’d be 64 and have groupies? What does Mrs. Bennett think about this development? Bennett: Who knew? Well, all I can say: there’s no accounting for taste. As for Mrs. Bennett, I’ve told her about the ladies and she heartily approves. I wish she were nervous, but she’s not.