William J. Bennett
(Remarks delivered on October 8, 2005 at the Bakersfield Business Conference in Bakersfield, California)

I am called upon to answer charges that should never have come up in the first place. But such are the times in which we live, and sometimes their level of dialogue.

I have been slandered, defamed, misrepresented and libeled. I will not stand for it. I will not go away, or go meekly and quietly into that good night. Nor will I withdraw from the discussion. My entire career has been one of taking on serious issues, I have taken brickbats for that. I will continue to. Those who do not engage in serious conversations about serious matters can lob their shots at me. I can take them.

The topic is race, crime and abortion.

Recently on my radio show, Morning In America, I was having a discussion with a caller about good and bad arguments for and against abortion. He said that if we aborted fewer babies, we would increase our Social Security trust fund. I said that’s not how you want to argue against abortion. In the course of this discussion, I hypothesized another argument you don’t want to make, a deliberately abhorrent argument for abortion—that the abortion of black children would lead to a reduction in crime. I did so to show why amoral or immoral arguments for or against abortion are not good arguments. Rather, I suggested, stick to the morality of the issue, not cold calculations reducible to statistical analysis that can be argued both ways. I was putting forward a bad argument to immediately shoot it down. Widely circulated versions of my remarks – for example, on the Today Show, in Time Magazine, on MSNBC, and in a flurry of press releases from Capitol Hill – inaccurately reported what I said during that conversation, and what I meant. They reported or emphasized only the abhorrent argument, not my shooting it down.

So today, although I cannot apologize for what I said and meant, which when understood in context ought not be objectionable, I regret that people have misrepresented my views so that they have been the cause of hurt, controversy, and confusion. What was presented in some of the media as my opinion would shock me as well; so I cannot blame many people for being mad as hell at what they heard. But such characterizations of my statements and views are not a fair, accurate, or true picture of either what I believe or what I said. In my conversation, I was raising an abhorrent hypothetical—and said so—an idea contrary to everything I believe, and contrary to the record of my life, my work and my writings, including 17 books.

Could I have said it better? Maybe. But my position, one of moral condemnation, could not have been clearer. “Morally reprehensible” are the words I used immediately, in the same breath and thought as this ugly hypothetical. What do my critics not understand about the meaning of the words “morally reprehensible”? Do they think it means approval?

So over the course of the past week, I have been condemned as a “racist,” I myself have been called “reprehensible,” and it is said I am an advocate for “aborting black children,” and even worse.

My critics have told me to shut up about race, crime, abortion, and black America – that I cannot go there. But that’s impossible. I have been there for forty years, and I am not leaving now.

I am pro-life, I am dedicated to the proposition, as all of us are, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these – you know the rest. I have worked toward the real achievement of that equality and opportunity all of my life.

I normally don’t like it when people talk about themselves – and I don’t like to do it here, but I must, because my critics have made the issue me.

In 1967-68, a tense year for race relations in America, I was in Mississippi. I was teaching there. I taught philosophy at the University of Southern Mississippi. What I became known for teaching was the philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Not everyone there approved, believe me.

In the 1970s and 1980s King came up again. I fought against segregation in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. My first appointment to government at the National Endowment for the Humanities almost didn’t happen. Some detractors from my then-home state of North Carolina wrote Senator Jesse Helms, whose endorsement I needed, that I was a “liberal” and had a big picture of the same Martin Luther King in my office. I don’t know about the “liberal” – they thought I was liberal in Hattiesburg, too – but the part about the picture was certainly true.

As the United States Secretary of Education, I visited inner-city schools in probably every major city of this country. For all children, I advocated for school choice, against a ghetto-ized, dumbed-down curriculum, and for more attention to the education of character. I said, incessantly, that a good education was the critical civil right of our time.

As the nation’s first Drug Czar, I returned to those cities, and to public housing, and to crack houses, and to hospitals, to “preemie” wards where premature babies were born because their mothers were on crack, and to treatment centers in church basements to find out what was going on. We went after the drug dealers, and you know what, we got a lot of them. Believe it or not, we – all of us, government and citizens alike – started to break the back of the drug epidemic. And the numbers showed it. I was controversial, and we were often criticized by the academia and by elites. But these criticisms were nothing compared to the expressions of thanks from the inner-city parents in those communities who knew what we were doing, and who knew what the illegal drug trade – specifically, crack – was doing to their babies.

Since I left government, I have continued these campaigns in both the private and semi-private and public spheres. In my books, I have condemned all forms of bigotry and, in my childrens’ books, consistently highlighted positive role models from all races and ethnicities. An education company I helped found has developed an excellent curriculum for use by all children – all age levels and abilities – wherever they live in the United States. I am told that in a couple of weeks, it will be announced that this excellent math program has dramatically lifted the scores of inner-city, minority children.

I have been involved in much charitable work in these quarters. I believe it has done some good as well. I hope so. Again, I normally don’t like to do this: I established and continue to fund a scholarship program for young women from the Washington, DC area.

But what I’m proudest of in my charitable work is the program my wife founded and runs, Best Friends. It is in 26 cities around the country. It is dedicated to helping adolescents make positive life decisions, including abstinence from sex, drugs, and alcohol. According to the University of Chicago, the high school girls in her program are 120 times less likely to engage in pre-marital sex than other girls. I would guess that 75 percent of the girls in her program are black. Elayne is doing very well by these young women, and they know it. She is so proud of them – as I am of her. I would venture to say her program – for which she has taken no salary for 15 years, 60 hours a week – has saved more children, largely in the inner city, than anything most my critics have ever done.

All of this work means nothing to those critics. Because when I broached the sensitive topics of abortion, race, and crime, my comments became the subject of dishonest and selective editing, in order not to further a conversation, but to stop one – to put a hit on me, to take me out. Well, I’m not going. They’ve tried before. That’s not the point.

The point today is this: I have worked to provide safety from crime and drugs, and educational opportunities for all children in this country. That’s what I do. Those two things – and my family, my faith, my country, football, rock-and-roll, and the mountains – that’s all I do. That’s my life. And for many parents in the inner city, there are no higher priorities than those first two things: safety and education for their children. For years, I have advocated policies which I believe would serve them. And some of these, implemented, have in fact served them very well. So to the critics who are after my hide, I ask you this: What is your plan to help these children? What measures of effectiveness do you have to decrease illiteracy? (63% of African American 4th graders cannot read at a basic level.) I have a plan – do you? Where is my critics’ program that will help prevent teenage pregnancy and thereby the horribly and tragically large abortion rate in the black community – a rate three times higher than in the white community? I know of programs that can help. I give them my support, my money, and my time. And I invite my critics to join me in this.

In the end, let me point out that at the heart of the controversy this last week were abortion, black children, and crime. These are tough, explosive issues in American life, but we have to address them. We cannot flinch from them. But let me be as clear as I can on this controversial combination of all three issues. I am pro-life – I am unalterably and categorically opposed to any plan, idea, or scheme to promote widespread abortion of black children (or white children, or Latino American children), whatever its effect on the crime rate, the growth rate, or the GDP. I abhor such a notion. Today more than 1,000 black children will be legally aborted in this country. I grieve, as we all should, at those numbers, and I know people and programs that offer a better way. Do my critics? Do they abhor this calamity? If they really do, let me offer them some words they can use about the widespread abortion of black children, words of mine from the radio show a week ago: “ridiculous, impossible, and morally reprehensible.” Those were my words. Now they can try them on.

A final thought on this: If the very prospect of the widespread abortion of black babies is as obnoxious and horrible to my critics as they are saying it is, then perhaps they can join me, my wife, my colleagues, friends, supporters, churches – and address not simply the prospect of widespread abortion, but its reality. We can do better.

In conclusion, let me talk about truth for a half minute. Let us engage with earnestness and honesty the tough, hard issues of the day. But let’s treat each other better in doing so.

We could do worse than going back to that 3000-year-old model of dialogue – three things old Socrates said are needed for such dialogue – candor, intelligence, and good will. Let’s work on the good will.

And that, as Forrest Gump said, is all I have to say about that.

William J. Bennett is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show, Bill Bennett’s Morning In America, and the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute.

William J. Bennett

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