LONG BEFORE DR. LAURA became a household name and before angels got their own TV shows, there was William J. Bennett.
Bennett, who was Ronald Reagan's education secretary and Bush's drug czar, was talking about character before character was cool.His 1993 "Book of Virtues" was a best seller. Since then, Bill Bennett has become almost a professional moralist. So much so that his older brother, Bob, who is the president's personal lawyer, occasionally has to remind him, "You're not the nation's priest."
Bill Bennett's latest project - along with writing a book about outrage and President Clinton - has been the National Commission on Civic Renewal. He and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., are co-chairmen.
The commission, one of several studying how to improve political and social participation, issued its final report last week. On a muggy morning in June, Bennett lectured a roomful of reporters about the dangers of America becoming "A Nation of Spectators."
"We're still the greatest nation in the world," Bennett began. But couldn't be far behind.
Sure enough, he said that the country that leads the industrial world in wealth and power, influence and consequence also leads in murder, violent crime, juvenile violence, divorce, cocaine consumption, pornography production and consumption, and other unsavory things.
There are bright spots - teenage pregnancy and the welfare rolls are down.
But despite an economic boom, America's families, neighborhoods and communities are too often frayed. Schools are failing. The culture too often is vulgar, violent and mindless.
America's history is of working together to solve problems, but when people feel powerless, they become spectators. The trend toward "civic disengagement" and cynicism that began in the 1970s with Watergate and Vietnam has worsened for a generation.
And, he said, it's our own fault.
There have never been more opportunities for individuals to participate in change, but middle-class people feel what sociologist Alan Wolfe calls a "perverse pleasure in powerlessness."
The prescription? Turn off the TV, stop whining about how busy you are and get a (civic) life.
Nunn ticked off some of the things individuals can do: Join a neighborhood watch program. Go to church. Check your kid's homework. Get involved in a local civic group. Write and protest advertisers who put on programs that diminish society. Write and praise those that uplift us.
Bennett brushed off the excuse that people just don't have time.
Americans claim they're busier, more pressured and stretched further, he said, "but Americans have more leisure time than ever."
While most of the recommendations are aimed at individuals, there's a recognition that faith-based institutions and government have important roles. The report notes that churches are effective in dealing with many social problems, and it recommends changing the tax code to increase the incentive for charitable contributions.
Before dismissing all this as overly simplistic, it's worth remembering that Bill Bennett guessed correctly in the early 1990s that this country was hungry for virtue, of all things.