I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here."
I have known for years that Bill Bennett gambles. I found out by reading a column four years ago, written by my own daughter, Kate Maddox, in the Las Vegas Sun. Kate wrote that Bennett was a high-roller who frequented the Bellagio and was "comped"--that is, given free room and board--at one of the swanky villas that surround the hotel's gigantic faux lake with towering fountains, right on the Strip.
Kate interviewed Bennett, who made no attempt to cover up. Why should he? Bennett smokes, too (or at least he did), and he likes to eat. To gamble, as he sees it--and as I see it, too--is to indulge in an activity that provides pleasure and excitement and at least the opportunity for profit. In itself, it is neither illegal nor immoral (after all, church bingo has been a thriving business for years). Gambling hurts other people only when it is reckless--like drinking, or driving for that matter.
Now, the Washington Monthly--which, frankly, I didn't even know was still publishing--has "exposed" Bennett's gambling, with the cute headline, "The Bookie of Virtue." The subhead declares: "William J. Bennett has made millions lecturing people on morality--and blown it on gambling."
The idea is that Bennett is a hypocrite because he believes that parents should teach moral principles to their children and that ethical behavior should have an important place in public life, but, nonetheless, he gambles in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
I can imagine the writers and editors at the Washington Monthly, along with colleagues at Newsweek, which also ran the piece, spending long hours trying to find actual examples of condemnations of gambling in "The Book of Virtues" and other bestsellers by Bennett. Evidently, they found none since none is quoted.
That makes sense since Bennett does not view gambling as immoral.
He is quoted in the Washington Monthly article as saying: "I've gambled all my life and it's never been a moral issue with me .. I view it as drinking. If you can't handle it, don't do it."
Bennett is a smart man and knows how to get his ideas across. That gift has made him rich, and he deserves his success. Anyone who knows him recognizes that, unlike many on the religious right, he is not a scold and a prig. He enjoys life. What he does with his money is his own business. He can buy a house in Aspen or a private jet or collect Impressionist paintings or travel to the Antarctic or dine out with family and friends at expensive restaurants every night. It's up to him.
Some of the members of the Washington Monthly circle--like Michael Kinsley and Philip Carter (not to mention its famous benefactor, Sen. Jay Rockefeller)--have probably made a lot of money, too. How do they use it? Are they hypocrites if, as good liberals, they don't give most of it away and live as ascetics?
There is no doubt that the Washington Monthly, which has always seen itself as a "serious" policy magazine and not one of those sensational rags that get all the attention, has a sensational story here. The writer, Joshua Green, got his hands on casino records, which are supposed to be strictly private. The records show, for example, that "in one two-month period, Bennett wired more than $1.4 million to cover losses." The records are incomplete, and Bennett himself says that he has roughly broken even over the past 10 years.
But there is something deeper going on here.
Bennett is being held up to ridicule not so much because he is a hypocrite (he clearly is not) but because he has had the temerity, over the past few decades, to state clearly that character counts and that, as Green writes in a different context, "morality and public policy are deeply intertwined."
To many on the left, this concept is hopelessly antique and threatening--and, by the way, part of President George W. Bush's immense appeal. Hence, the sheer delight in catching Bill Bennett doing something naughty and the endless Maureen Dowd columns and Bill Maher jokes that will surely follow this weekend's revelations.
Already, Kinsley has issued a positively giddy little column in the Washington Post. He writes: "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." Oh, for the alumni of the Washington Monthly, anything will do if it slanders Bill Bennett.
Virtue, however, is not a joke. But gambling--as long as you can afford your losses--is not an activity that should be weighed in the scales of virtue. In fact, those scales have enough legitimate work these days to keep them occupied, in such matters as lying, cheating and stealing--intellectually and otherwise.
Bill Bennett has always believed that. So have I. So have most Americans. So, I am sure, have the editors of the Washington Monthly and Newsweek. That's why they are the real hypocrites in this story.