Bill Bennett's kinder, gentler defenders.

Bill Bennett's kinder, gentler defenders.

Bill Bennett's kinder, gentler defenders.

Politics and policy.
May 6 2003 5:38 PM

Berate and Switch

Bill Bennett's kinder, gentler defenders.

Here come the Bill Bennett defenders. In case you've been sitting in front of a video poker screen for the past week, here's the story: The Washington Monthly's Joshua Green and Newsweek's Jonathan Alter reported that Bennett, a conservative moral lecturer and author of The Book of Virtues, has gambled at casinos for years, losing as much as $8 million. Slate's Michael Kinsley and other liberals jumped on the story, spanking Bennett for hypocrisy.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Now conservative pundits are coming to Bennett's aid. They argue, as Kinsley predicted, that Bennett's gambling is 1) OK because it hurts nobody else directly and 2) non-hypocritical because Bennett never explicitly criticized gambling. Either point can be argued separately. But together they don't stand up. Bennett's hypocrisy isn't that he gambled while faulting others for the same habit. It's that he says it's OK for him to indulge in a habit that hurts nobody else directly, but it isn't OK for you. To excuse his conduct, his libertarian defenders are substituting their standards for his.

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Bennett told the Monthly: "I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything." He compared gambling to alcohol: "If you can't handle it, don't do it." His defenders make the same point. "Bennett deserves privacy; he deserves whatever means he can legally use to relax when he is off duty," writes Andrew Sullivan. "What he does with his money is his own business," agrees Jim Glassman. "The only conceivable victims here are the Bennett family, and a little bird tells me that they'll do just fine," saysNational Review's Jonah Goldberg. Unlike adultery, gambling doesn't involve a "willingness to hurt others," adds the Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last.

Sullivan, Glassman, Goldberg, and Last are fully entitled to make this argument. But Bennett isn't. As drug czar in 1989 and 1990, he constantly emphasized that anyone who patronized that addictive industry was responsible for its victims. On Meet the Press, he advocated mandatory sentences for "recreational, yuppie" marijuana users, blaming them for "the murder and mayhem in Washington, the fact that we have babies now being born addicted to cocaine. … These people are accessories to all those things, and they need to start paying a price." He told the Wall Street Journal that the "casual user … is driving the whole enterprise." He told USA Today, "For your middle class or your yuppie user, let's do what they do in Phoenix: Weekend in jail, counseling program, and you pay the cost of it." He criticized celebrities who admitted to past drug use, warning that such disclosures gave kids the idea that "you can do drugs and still be rich and successful."

You can argue (contrary to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission) that gambling doesn't trap and destroy people the way drugs do. But again, Bennett can't. The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators 2001, to which Bennett wrote the introduction, says, "Approximately 2.5 million adult Americans are pathological gamblers; another 3 million have been classified as problem gamblers. … According to the American Psychiatric Association, 'pathological gambling is persistent and recurrent maladaptive gambling behavior … that disrupts personal, family, or vocational pursuits.' "

To quell the furor, Bennett has issued a Clintonian non-apology apology: "It is true that I have gambled large sums of money. I have also complied with all laws on reporting wins and losses. Nevertheless, I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I wish to set. Therefore, my gambling days are over." It isn't about the example, Bill. It's about you doing for gambling what you said pot smokers did for the drug trade. If you'd caught any of your libertarian sympathizers with a joint, they'd have spent the weekend in jail for patronizing a corrosive industry. Lucky for you, they're more forgiving.