He wasn’t the first person to speak of “national conversations” in the popular press, but if anyone is responsible for popularizing the term, it is former education secretary, onetime drug czar and all-purpose conservative scold Bill Bennett.
Since his days in the Reagan administration, Bennett has constantly called for national conversations — on the place of religion in American life, on the proper relationship between the government and the people, on foreign policy, and much more. When he dropped his bid for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, he pledged to remain engaged in the national conversation on “the cultural and social condition of modern America.” (He’s still at it: Last month he wrote an essay outlining a “national conversation about poverty.”)
But like many others who have called for national conversations, Bennett always seems to have clear conclusions in mind, whether limited government or the defeat of secularism. And that is precisely what renders such conversations largely non-conversational.
A true conversation “doesn’t have a goal; it’s spontaneous,” says Daniel Menaker, the author of “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation.” It’s about “making a human connection . . . you walk away feeling better.”