Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Bill Bennett fiasco (update)

Click here (or scroll down) for my analysis of the Bill Bennett story. Here's an update on the response from the White House and Capitol Hill:

Congressional Democrats blasted former Education Secretary William Bennett on Thursday for saying that aborting "every black baby in this country" would reduce the crime rate, and demanded their Republican counterparts do the same.

"This is precisely the kind of insensitive, hurtful and ignorant rhetoric that Americans have grown tired of," said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters on Friday that President Bush "believes the comments were not appropriate"...

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, had called on President Bush to condemn the comments by Bennett, who was anti-drug chief in Bush's father's administration.

"What could possibly have possessed Secretary Bennett to say those words, especially at this time?" Pelosi asked. "What could he possibly have been thinking? This is what is so alarming about his words."

But Bennett has been standing firm:

"I was putting forward a hypothetical proposition. Put that forward. Examined it. And then said about it that it's morally reprehensible. To recommend abortion of an entire group of people in order to lower your crime rate is morally reprehensible. But this is what happens when you argue that the ends can justify the means," he told CNN.

"I'm not racist, and I'll put my record up against theirs," referring to Pelosi and other critics. "I've been a champion of the real civil rights issue of our times -- equal educational opportunities for kids."

"We've got to have candor and talk about these things while we reject wild hypotheses," Bennett said.

"I don't think people have the right to be angry, if they look at the whole thing. But if they get a selective part of my comment, I can see why they would be angry. If somebody thought I was advocating that, they ought to be angry. I would be angry."

"But that's not what I advocate."

Asked if he owed people an apology, Bennett replied, "I don't think I do. I think people who misrepresented my view owe me an apology."


Well, perhaps. There certainly has been misrepresentation of his "view," particularly by those who have taken his statements out of context. But this should not let Bennett off the hook. I don't think he's a racist -- anyone who looks at his career and at what he's said and written over the years can see that -- but he shouldn't have used a sensitive racial example to make a point about how reductio ad absurdum arguments are philosophically and politically problematic.

As a public figure with a good deal of experience dealing with the media -- indeed, as a high-profile member of the media himself, as someone with high-level political experience -- he should have used his head before his mouth and considered just how his comments would likely be taken once out there in the public domain. In short, he should have known better.

I'm not sure who needs to apologize to whom, nor even if apologies are necessary, but this is already an overblown story that should go away. Bennett's critics should think about what he actually said before calling him a racist, but Bennett himself should take some time to mull over what was an astonishingly stupid thing to say.

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