AN avenging angel. An arrogant self-promoter. A white knight. A red dragon. William J. Bennett, soon to depart as US secretary of education, has been called all these things and more during his 40 months as the nation's top schoolmaster - a time of intense interest in and anxiety about the quality of American learning.
One thing is certain: Since Dr. Bennett replaced Terrel Bell, who refused to go along with the Reagan administration effort to shut down the Education Department, he has put his job on the map - given it new importance.
``If the [next education secretary] isn't an activist it'll be noticed,'' Bennett says from his office overlooking the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. ``It's better for the country if both parties debate ideas.''
His successor ``better not do a lot of shark-fin lunches,'' he says. ``The person better like visiting third grade in Toledo.''
Bennett (who leaves office Sept. 12) broke the traditional Republican hands-off approach to federal social involvement. With all the timidity and preciousness of a Sherman tank, he became the most activist of the nation's chief educators to date - from slamming fat-cat Capitol Hill lobbyists, to proposing a national high school curriculum based on a classical academic core that stressed Western civilization and democracy.
He weathered being pegged early on as the new James Watt of the Reagan White House, another foot-swallowing ideologue - to become a darling of the press, lauded by David Broder of the Washington Post; colorful, quotable, and good for more juicy stories than Scheherazade.