Bennett Defends Radio Remarks

By Michael A. Fletcher and Brian Faler

Conservative commentator William Bennett yesterday defended comments he made on his radio talk show suggesting that aborting black children would reduce crime, saying he was merely musing about a hypothetical argument and he made plain to listeners that he was not stating his own position.

Bennett, a former U.S. education secretary and national drug policy director, is under fire from Democrats, civil rights leaders, black conservatives and, as of yesterday, the White House and the Republican Party for saying Wednesday that "you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down."

He added immediately that such a thing would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do."

Yesterday, with the storm over these comments intensifying, Bennett released a defiant statement saying critics unfairly had pulled his comment out of context: "A thought experiment about public policy, on national radio, should not have received the condemnations it has."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, in a statement typical of a parade of similar comments from Democrats, denounced the remarks and called on Bennett to apologize. "Bill Bennett's hateful, inflammatory remarks regarding African Americans are simply inexcusable," he said. ". . . Are these the values of the Republican Party and its conservative allies?"

The White House and other Republicans made haste to say that the answer to Dean's question is no. Asked President Bush's reaction to Bennett's remarks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "The president believes the comments were not appropriate."

Similarly, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who has been reaching out to African Americans and other minorities, called Bennett's comments "regrettable and inappropriate." But Mehlman also lashed out at liberals whom he accused of engaging in racially divisive rhetoric when it suits their interests: "What's much worse is the hypocrisy . . . from the left."

The combative Bennett, whose syndicated radio show airs on the Salem Radio Network, offered no apologies. He explained that his comments came in response to a caller who suggested that Social Security would be in better financial shape if abortion were illegal, leaving more people to pay into the system. Bennett cautioned against making such far-reaching arguments and drove home his point by offering what he called "a noxious hypothetical analogy" to reducing crime by aborting black children.

Bennett's statement went on to say that "the whole issue of crime and race" has been on people's minds in light of the situation in New Orleans, and is aired frequently in academic settings. Given that, he called his comments barely noteworthy.

"Anyone paying attention to this debate should be offended by those who have selectively quoted me, distorted my meaning, and taken out of context the dialogue I engaged in this week," his statement said.

Others disagreed. Michelle D. Bernard, senior vice president of the conservative Independent Women's Forum, said Bennett's remarks underscore why many African Americans distrust conservatives even if they share similar values on some social and religious issues.

"In choosing to use the hypothetical genocide of black children as a way to reduce crime . . ., Bennett shamefully traded on the pervasive stereotype that it is African Americans who are responsible for all of the crime in the United States," she said. "People wonder why black people don't trust . . . notions such as compassionate conservatism, and Bill Bennett just added fuel to the fire the Bush administration has worked hard to put out."

Robert Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said "it was stupid" for Bennett to even ruminate on such an explosive topic but defended him as a good man. "Sometimes intellectuals become detached from common sense," he said.