Bill Bennett: The bookmaker of virtues.

Policy made plain.
May 4 2003 8:34 PM

Bill Bennett's Bad Bet

The bookmaker of virtues.

Slipping into the vice slot
Slipping into the vice slot

Sinners have long cherished the fantasy that William Bennett, the virtue magnate, might be among our number. The news over the weekend—that Bennett's $50,000 sermons and best-selling moral instruction manuals have financed a multimillion dollar gambling habit—has lit a lamp of happiness in even the darkest hearts. As the joyous word spread, crack flowed like water through inner-city streets, family court judges began handing out free divorces, children lit bonfires of The Book of Virtues, More Virtuous Virtues, Who Cheesed My Virtue?, Moral Tails: Virtue for Dogs, etc. And cynics everywhere thought, for just a moment: Maybe there is a God after all.

If there were a Pulitzer Prize for schadenfreude (joy in the suffering of others), Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and Joshua Green of the Washington Monthly would surely deserve it for bringing us this story. They are shoo-ins for the public service category in any event. Schadenfreude is an unvirtuous emotion of which we should be ashamed. Bill Bennett himself was always full of sorrow when forced to point out the moral failings of other public figures. But the flaws of his critics don't absolve Bennett of his own.

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Let's also be honest that gambling would not be our first-choice vice if we were designing this fantasy-come-true from scratch. But gambling will do. It will definitely do. Bill Bennett has been exposed as a humbug artist who ought to be pelted off the public stage if he lacks the decency to slink quietly away, as he is constantly calling on others to do. Although it may be impossible for anyone famous to become permanently discredited in American culture (a Bennett-like point I agree with), Bennett clearly deserves that distinction. There are those who will try to deny it to him. They will say:

1) He never specifically criticized gambling.This, if true, doesn't show that Bennett is not a hypocrite. It just shows that he's not a complete idiot. Working his way down the list of other people's pleasures, weaknesses, and uses of American freedom, he just happened to skip over his own. How convenient. Is there some reason why his general intolerance of the standard vices does not apply to this one? None that he's ever mentioned.

Open, say, Bennett's The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, and read about how Americans overvalue "unrestricted personal liberty." How we must relearn to "enter judgments on a whole range of behaviors and attitudes." About how "wealth and luxury ... often make it harder to deny the quest for instant gratification" because "the more we attain, the more we want." How would you have guessed, last week, that Bennett would regard a man who routinely "cycle[s] several hundred thousand dollars in an evening" (his own description) sitting in an airless Las Vegas casino pumping coins into a slot machine or video game? Well, you would have guessed wrong! He thinks it's perfectly OK as long as you don't spend the family milk money.

2) His gambling never hurt anyone else. This is, of course, the classic libertarian standard of permissible behavior, and I think it's a good one. If a hypocrite is a person who says one thing and does another, the problem with Bennett is what he says—not (as far as we know) what he does. Bennett can't plead liberty now because opposing libertarianism is what his sundry crusades are all about. He wants to put marijuana smokers in jail. He wants to make it harder to get divorced. He wants more "moral criticism of homosexuality" and "declining to accept that what they do is right."

In all these cases, Bennett wants laws against or heightened social disapproval of activities that have no direct harmful effects on anyone except the participants. He argues that the activities in question are encouraging other, more harmful activities or are eroding general social norms in some vague way. Empower America, one of Bennett's several shirt-pocket mass movements, officially opposes the spread of legalized gambling, and the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, one of Bennett's cleverer PR conceits, includes "problem" gambling as a negative indicator of cultural health. So, Bennett doesn't believe that gambling is harmless. He just believes that his own gambling is harmless. But by the standards he applies to everything else, it is not harmless.

Bennett has been especially critical of libertarian sentiments coming from intellectuals and the media elite. Smoking a bit of pot may not ruin their middle-class lives, but by smoking pot, they create an atmosphere of toleration that can be disastrous for others who are not so well-grounded. The Bill Bennett who can ooze disdain over this is the same Bill Bennett who apparently thinks he has no connection to all those "problem" gamblers because he makes millions preaching virtue and they don't.

3) He's doing no harm to himself. From the information in Alter's and Green's articles, Bennett seems to be in deep denial about this. If it's true that he's lost $8 million in gambling casinos over 10 years, that surely is addictive or compulsive behavior no matter how good virtue has been to him financially. He claims to have won more than he has lost, which is virtually (that word again!) impossible playing the machines as Bennett apparently does. If he's not in denial, then he's simply lying, which is a definite non-virtue. And he's spraying smarm like the worst kind of cornered politician—telling the Washington Post, for example, that his gambling habit started with "church bingo."

Even as an innocent hobby, playing the slots is about as far as you can get from the image Bennett paints of his notion of the Good Life. Surely even a high-roller can't "cycle through" $8 million so quickly that family, church, and community don't suffer. There are preachers who can preach an ideal they don't themselves meet and even use their own weaknesses as part of the lesson. Bill Bennett has not been such a preacher. He is smug, disdainful, intolerant. He gambled on bluster, and lost.