The Cultural Landscape and Manhood
About the Guest
A boy without a father is like an explorer without a map. William Bennett, former Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, addresses manhood in today's culture and reflects on his own boyhood and the men who influenced him.
William BennettWilliam J. Bennett is one of America’s most important, influential and respected voices on cultural, political, and education issues. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Bill Bennett studied philosophy at Williams College (B.A.) and the University of Texas (Ph.D.) and earned a law degree (J.D.) from Harvard. He is the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is a Senior Advisor to Project Lead The Way, one of the nation’s leading providers of training and curriculum to improve STEM educa...more
A boy without a father is like an explorer without a map. William Bennett, former Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, addresses manhood in today’s culture and reflects on his own boyhood and the men who influenced him.
The Cultural Landscape and Manhood
Bob: Former Secretary of Education William Bennett believes that there are a lot of young men today who need to man up.
Bill: There’s a lot of lingering. There’s a lot of loitering going on. There are a lot of maturity deficits going on. There’s too much video game playing going on. Men in their mid-twenties play more video games than boys 12 to 18: an average of three hours a day. I don’t care if a guy plays a little video game, but three hours a day? That’s crazy! “Where’s your—what’s your job? Where’s your workout? Where’s everything else?”
Bob: This is, apparently, a swinging edition of FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 6th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I am Bob Lepine.
If you’re a young man or, for that matter, an older man, and one of your major ambitions in life is to get to Level 17 on that video game, let’s think about those priorities, okay? Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I remember, I was listening to Focus on the Family back in the early ‘90s, and I heard an interview that
Dr. Dobson was doing with Bill Bennett. He asked Secretary Bennett, “What’s new? What are you working on?” Dr. Bennett said, “Well, I’m working on a book called The Book of Virtues, and I turned up my radio to go, “When is that coming out? I need that book. I want that book,” and it wasn’t out yet. It was like six months before the book came out that I heard this. But I got on the waiting list to get the book, and we got it when it first came out.
I used to read the stories from The Book of Virtues to my kids at night. The problem was they kept wanting me to read the same ones over and over again, instead of moving on. I wanted to get to some of the newer stories, but they just wanted to hear the same ones over and over again!
Dennis: It’s interesting because I had the same experience. We read the book as well; and it was great to hear good, wholesome stories that had values, convictions, courage—not just sprinkled throughout them but embedded in them. I want to welcome the author of that book back to the broadcast, Bill Bennett.
Bill: Thank you. Thank you, Dennis. Thank you.
Dennis: Glad you’re here.
Bill: Glad to be here.
Dennis: I didn’t know this—you’re a native of Brooklyn.
Bill: Brooklyn, New York.
Dennis: You grew up there.
Bill: I did.
Dennis: And your father. Tell us about the family that you grew up in.
Bill: Sure. I should say, first, that my wife is from Orangeburg, South Carolina, so this is a real mixed marriage! [Laughter] It is not race. It is culture.
Dennis: Wow! Wow.
Bill: I mean, I thought, “Pasta.” She said, “Rice.” Here I am a New Yorker; and I hear my boys at an early age saying, “Momma, can we have cheese on our grits?” [Laughter] “Don’t say that in New York!”
Dennis: What are grits; right?
Bill: Yes, right! I’ll take it al dente please! [Laughter]
I grew up in Brooklyn. My brother, Bob, who is a very well-known lawyer in Washington—he was Bill Clinton’s lawyer; probably best known for that. He and I had an argument or two about that. Grew up with our mother in Brooklyn—she worked, a single mom. We lived with my mother and grandmother. They were very good women, very strong women; but my parents were divorced when I was five. My mother then had a series of other marriages that were pretty unfortunate, about five more. They didn’t last. So we didn’t have a permanent male presence in our life but, in this book, The Book of Man, I talk about a lot of different men who’ve meant something to me in terms of what I’ve read and people I’ve seen and admired.
But my mother made a very special effort to bring men into our lives whom she thought were good men and men we should spend time with and emulate. As I argue in the book—the old Greek word, mimesis—imitation. The cover of the book has a man pointing over the ridge, to a boy, pointing something out. My mother would bring good men into the house—coaches, teachers, friends of the family—and say, “These are good men. You listen to these men.”
Dennis: And in terms of you. It’s been said that a boy without a father is like an explorer without a map. As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, I mean, man, I’m telling you what. That’s big stuff there.
Bill: It’s big stuff, yes.
Dennis: How did it impact you, as a boy, who really had a father who ultimately just stepped out of his life?
Bill: I withdrew a lot (according to my brother). My brother is older and is still a guide to me. Although our politics are very different, we’re family; and he looks out for me.
But I retreated into books. And then, there were men who came along in my life who were great teachers and excellent brothers. They were interested in what I was interested in intellectually, and they guided me and gave me book lists. Then, later on, there were coaches who were very important to me. When I was seven--I’m running on here. You interrupt me; it’s your show! [Laughter]
When I was Secretary of Education, they started something called, “Secretary of Education will identify the best teacher he ever had.” I got to pick the best teacher I ever had, as a young man. I picked my line coach, a former Marine, because he taught me more, I thought, than anyone. He taught me—William James puts it this way—the difference between toughness and callousness. As a boy, I thought toughness meant being callous—meant being kind of macho—you know, tough guy.
Bill: He taught me toughness was resilience, you know--perseverance, which is something a man needs to teach a boy.
That’s what real toughness is. It isn’t this swagger. It’s enduring, taking a lot of heat, and then staying on the right path.
Dennis: If we somehow had the ability to get a snapshot of an event or an encounter with your two sons, that you raised to adulthood, that would be a favorite of yours—because here you are—you’re a young man who grew up without a father. Then, God blesses you with two sons.
Undoubtedly, you were passionate about being that kind of dad you’re talking about right there—of being engaged, purposeful, intentional, and really helping them become the men God made them to be. What one event or one snapshot would be your favorite? Do you have a favorite that would be a moment where that occurred; that was taking place?
Bill: I guess I have a couple.
You know, Homer says in The Iliad, “It is the wish of the father that the son will exceed him in every way and the mother will bless him in her heart.” And this was my wish. It is every father’s wish.
When my older son, John, was the All-American Player of the Year in lacrosse, I was very proud. I’m a sports guy. I love sports. It was irresistible. The sweetest part of it was that John said, “I’m not going to be home in the afternoon. I’ve got to go downtown.” I said, “What for?” “I’ve got to get my picture taken.” “What for?” “I don’t know, some sports thing.”
He had been selected as the outstanding lacrosse player in the United States, and he didn’t want to tell us. That was a great moment. Any father would be proud. It would be affectation for me to tell you I wasn’t just bursting at the seams. It didn’t take me long to answer your question! [Laughter]
The other moment was when we were in a golf cart on a vacation, and I told the boys to stop fighting. They were about nine and four.
I said, “One more and you’re going to walk, and the mosquitoes are going to get you.” But one more time—they did it one more time. [Laughter] And I said, “You’re out of the golf cart.” As I drove off, I heard our little guy, Joe, starting to cry, and I heard this soon-to-be great lacrosse player, John, say, “Don’t cry, Joe. Don’t worry. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” I can’t say it without—that was as proud as anything, too. You know, “He’s not heavy; he’s my brother. I’ve got you.” That’s when I knew Mrs. Bennett was doing something right. [Laughter] (which she has).
With Joseph, a more complicated story. John was the boy wanted in the Book of Virtues. He was the captain. Everybody loved him. The boys loved him. The girls loved him. He was captain of every team he ever played on. Joe had to struggle to pick up with John—to keep up with John. You remember Chariots of Fire?
Bill: Eric Liddell runs and feels God’s pleasure.
Bill: He runs naturally. Abrams has to work to be that good.
Joe had to work to be that good. Joe—if John were at a party and somebody did something inappropriate—pulled out booze or, you know, a joint—John left and half the crowd would leave with him.
If Joe was driving his car, and something ridiculously bad was going on at some party, radar would go on in his head and he would go right to it. You know, this is just, “You’ve got one son; you’ve got another son.” He’d find where the trouble was, and he got himself in some trouble. Then he and I had a talk, and he said, “I’ve got to find something that pulls back harder on me.” I said, “Well, we know about prayer. We know about your school. We know about this. We know about study.” He said, “I think I’m going to join the Marines.”
He graduated from Princeton. Two hours later, in a much more moving ceremony, he and one other senior were commissioned Second Lieutenants in the United States Marine Corps. That was a great moment. That was! Because I wasn’t sure that was going to happen, you know?
Bill: You’ve got kids. You’ve got a bunch of kids.
Dennis: Oh, yes.
Bill: It’s happened, and I couldn’t be happier or prouder.
Dennis: You know, I’m listening to those stories and having a few flashbacks of my own as we’ve raised our boys and our daughters, too, as far as that goes. I look at the landscape today, Bill, as I know you do. Bob and I have talked a lot about this—just about what’s happening to men today in the culture. Not every young man’s got a Bill Bennett for a dad who is going to say, “You know what? You do that one more time—
You are walking. Even if mosquitoes carry you off; you’re walking.”
But there are a lot of young men today who, growing up, didn’t have the guidance. They are like the explorer without a map. They are still trying to find their way. They’re in their twenties; some are in their thirties. Some are even married and raising their own children, and they don’t know what a man is and what a man does.
Dennis: Where did we go wrong here? How did this all get started in the first place?
Bill: Almost everywhere. Almost every way we could. I remember, I used to say when I was Secretary of Education, Dennis, “If there was a bad idea brought into the land, the first place we would put it in practice was in American public school.”
You know, for kids who couldn’t do math, “Well, then, let’s just change it. Let’s just estimate what we’re doing.” You know, “If culture was teaching bad lessons, let’s just start teaching moral relativism as a doctrine.” It just. . .
We went wrong, literally, somewhere between l969 and l973. Whether you look at out-of-wedlock birth, whether you look at religious affiliation, belief in God, belief in the objective truth, belief in norms and standards.
It turns out, and I think it’s true, that when the structures that we have in a Judeo-Christian civilization—put together for the preservation of the best in us—when they get weakened, it is the boys who fall apart before the girls.
It may be because the girls, the women, end up with the kids most of the time so they have responsibilities they cannot avoid; but the men try to avoid the responsibilities, having not been taught anything else. There’s a lot of lingering. There’s a lot of loitering going on. There’s a lot of hanging-out, too much hanging-out in your parents’ basement. There are a lot of maturity deficits going on. There’s too much video game playing going on of men in their mid-twenties. Men in their mid-twenties play more video games than boys 12 to 18: an average of three hours a day.
I don’t care if a guy plays a little video game, but three hours a day when you’re 23, 24, 25 years old? That’s crazy! That’s crazy! “Where’s your—what’s your job? Where is your workout? Where’s everything else?”
Bob: And why is he doing that? Why is the 23 year-old spending three hours a day in front of a video game?
Bill: No one has taught him The Book of Man—the value of, for example, work. A man who has missed the pleasure of work has missed one of the great pleasures life has to offer. I tell my audience when I sign off radio, you know—I thank Goodness it’s Friday.
I’m one of those guys who loves the weekend. I was doing a sports interview the other day, and the guy said, “What did you thank God for around your table?” I said, “I thank God for my country, my family, and the SEC!” [Laughter] Where would we be?!
Dennis: That’s right.
Bill: Anyway; but I also thank God it’s Monday. You guys love to do this. It’s so obvious. For a boy to see a man taking joy in his work! You know, my wife has said, “Get the boys up. Have them go to your radio station.” I mean, it is 5:00 in the morning or 4:30 in the morning, but they’ve done it.
Where came this--and I know exactly where it came from--this notion that you live for the weekend? What is that? That you live so that you can then play on the weekend? That’s crazy!
Bill: To sustain a life of meaning and have real joy, a man has to have work.
Dennis: The book is loaded, as your works all are, with great stories—stories that really cause a man’s chest to swell with courage.
You had to have the objective as you wrote this book, “I’m going to tell some stories here that show men what real mean do, how they act, how they behave, and how they go into tough places.” Now, Bob’s going to get onto me for this, and he always does when I ask a question like this. Is there a story from this book, The Book of Man, that’s your favorite, in terms of one that stirs other men to courage?
Bill: I think maybe Rick Rescorla. Rick Rescorla was a Yorkshire man who came to the United States to join the US military. The story is very little known, but he became the Chief of Security at Tower Two at the World Trade Center. He made all the execs--hot shots, hedge-fund guys; you know, the guys we’re all talking about now—march up and down the stairs of the World Trade Center three times a year.
They complained and they said, “Who are you?” You know, “Just some security cop.” He made them do it. He said, “We’re going to do it. I’m going to teach you a great Yorkshire song: ‘Oh, ye men of Yorkshire’!” You know, on and on. [Laughter] He made them sing it. They just thought he was the biggest fool.
And when “that day” came, they all got out. They all got out. Maybe two or three didn’t. He went back in to look for the three who didn’t get out, and we never saw him again.
It’s a story about selfless sacrifice. It’s about courage. It’s about preparation. It’s about being a man. He joined the US military because he said, “I think it’s the greatest force for civilization in the world.” He loved America. It’s a remarkable story.
It’s nobody’s fault that the story isn’t well-told. Well, maybe it is. I mean, could there be a better movie than the movie about this man? He meets this American woman and they fall in love. They get married. They have a wonderful life together.
There are so many stories from that time, and that’s probably why. I keep thinking about him leading these execs--these hot shots, you know, financial traders—with them complaining. I’ve talked to a number of those guys since. They say, “He saved my life. He saved my family. He saved us.”
Dennis: I’ve got another question for you.
Dennis: And Bob knows where this one’s going. One of my favorite questions to ask another man, or a group of men around a table like we’re seated at right now, is this: “Out of all the things you’ve ever done, what is the most courageous thing you have ever done?” And while you’re thinking, the answer isn’t, “I’ve never done anything that was courageous.” Courage is doing your duty under fire. It’s stepping up when the easiest thing to do would be to do nothing or to step down.
Bill: Yes. I don’t know.
Maybe I have. I’d have to have somebody else answer that. I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know. I’d like to think I have. I remember sitting at a Cabinet meeting once where nobody was saying anything and, sure, somebody had to say something. It was Ronald Reagan. I owed a lot to him. I thought of the words of an old rock and roll song by Chuck Berry: “I got a chance. I oughta take it. Come on, Queenie, let’s make it.” You know, “This is my shot,” (takes her to the dance floor).
And I said, “Well, I have to disagree.” The President was kind of not paying attention because President Reagan—you know, there’s this stuff about Reagan, that he fell asleep at Cabinet meetings. We all say, “No, he didn’t.” When people ask me, I say, “Of course he did. Given what was being said or presented, it was exactly the right response.” [Laughter] You had some boring bunch of graphs some guy was trying to show something.
Ronald Reagan was thinking, “Restore America. Destroy the evil empire.” He’s got more important work to do.
I mean, did Churchill fall asleep at meetings? Sure. He had other things. He needed his rest for the most important tasks.
I can’t think of anything I’d really pat myself on the back about in terms of courage. All I know is that I was doing something to provoke a lot of people to say that I should be fired from the Reagan administration, but Ronald Reagan didn’t think so, so that was good. Whether that was courage or just Irish recklessness. You know, the Irish get credit for courage when it’s something else.
You know the story of the Irishman walking down the street? He sees a fight going on and says, “Is this a private fight or can anybody get in on it?” [Laughter] So I’ve been in a lot of fights. I like a fight. I like a fight.
Dennis: I wonder, though. You take us into the Cabinet meeting room with President Reagan, and you disagree with the President of the United States.
I have to wonder, also, Bill, if you being a dad, courageously stepping up and into a couple of boys’ lives to shape their lives on a day-in and day-out basis, as a man, who really didn’t have a father; who really didn’t have that arm around the shoulder of a man speaking truth to another man, and you did that. No, it didn’t occur on a battlefield in a foreign country where you jumped on a grenade or did something there, but you stepped up in the midst of the battle to do your duty as a dad, under fire.
Bill: I don’t know. Maybe it was easy. My brother and I—my brother Bob—the more-liberal Bennett. People see us together and they say, “Which one of you is adopted?” You know? [Laughter] It’s so funny. He’s the Clinton guy and I’m not, you know? Anyway! He’s been married almost 40 years. I’ve been married 30 years, both beating our mother by a lot here. Maybe it was easy for us. Maybe we went through that, and we were not going to put our kids through it. Maybe something like that.
I never really did very much I didn’t want to do, in terms of being with these kids. I just loved being with them. I mean, when they were little, I was of very little use. I acted like I didn’t know how to change diapers so I never had to do it again. I made a mess of it and my wife said, “You’ll never do that again!” I said, “Yes, dear.” [Laughter] Method in my madness, you know! But it was easy.
And she has—Elayne--has done a remarkable job. She was the one up late at night. She was the one reading the stories from The Book of Virtues. I was writing them for the public. She was reading them to the kids.
Bob: Well, however it worked at your house, I think we’ve all benefitted, not only from The Book of Virtues, but I hope a lot of parents will get The Book of Man. And if you have sons, start reading these stories to your sons to instill the kind of virtue and nobility and courage that ought to be a part of a young man’s character.
Of course, we’ve got copies of The Book of Man in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Our listeners can order copies online at FamilyLifeToday.com or they can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request a copy. Again, the title is The Book of Man, by Dr. Bill Bennett. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order at 1-800-FLTODAY.
By the way, we wanted to say thank you for your participation in the “Stepping Up” video event and video series that we put together. A lot of guys have benefitted from going through that material and your contribution was a big part of that. So thank you. In fact, I was with a group of guys from our church recently and we went through about half of the “Stepping Up” video event. Our weekend was so full as we got together that we couldn’t do the whole series. We did about half of it. It’s just good, solid content for guys to go through together.
We’re hoping that other guys might consider, this summer, doing a group getaway; whether it’s something you do officially with guys from your church, or whether it’s a group of dads and sons who get away together and do something fun together and watch these videos as a part of you get away, we’d like to encourage you to do that. In fact, we’re making the “Stepping Up” video event kit free to everybody who will purchase ten of the “Stepping Up” event manuals.
You can go to our website for more information or to order. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Or, if you have any questions, call us at 1-800-FLTODAY. This offer is good during the month of June, so plan to take advantage of it. We’d love to hear your feedback; let us hear from you.
Now, we want to say happy anniversary today to Steve and Diane Stroobants who live in Chilton, Wisconsin. They listen to FamilyLife Today on “The Family: WEMY.”
The Stroobants are celebrating 36 years together as husband and wife today. Congratulations as you celebrate your anniversary. We think anniversaries matter here at FamilyLife. We think your anniversary matters a lot. As we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year, we’re spending time reflecting on the way God has used this ministry in the lives of hundreds of thousands of couples so that they are continuing to celebrate anniversaries year-in and year-out.
We want to say thank you for your partnership in helping to make that happen. It’s because of your financial support that FamilyLife Today exists, and we appreciate those of you who make an occasional donation in support of this ministry. We’re always glad to hear from you.
You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation, or you can mail your contribution to us at FamilyLife Today, Box 7111, Little Rock, AR. Our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow we want to hear more about how Dr. Bill Bennett understands the whole issue of what manhood ought to look like. We’re going to hear some of the lessons on manhood from President Reagan, back in the ‘80s. That’s coming up tomorrow. Hope our listeners can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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