America's "Virtue Guru" Bill Bennett is staring at a pair of snake eyes after last Friday's Newsweek story revealed his multi-million dollar gambling habit. It turns out he cycled through enormous amounts of speaking fees and book royalties playing slot machines and video poker, games involving no skill. The man who has made a superb and publicly beneficial career of proclaiming the virtues, including hard work and self-discipline, apparently drops the lever on slot machines at $500 a throw.
The reaction of many conservatives will be to downplay the story. They'll repeat Bennett's talking points about how he "didn't play the 'milk money'" and "never put his family at risk." Several of the regulars on National Review's weblog "The Corner" questioned whether Bennett's gambling could even be called a vice as it was in the Newsweek story. The Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last posted an article over the weekend referring to the controversy as "silly." Their comments reflect the instinctive desire to protect Bennett because he has been the most articulate and successful mass-market spokesman for social conservatism during the past two decades.
But trying to whitewash the unseemly public vision of Bill Bennett sitting before a slot machine for three hours at a time to unwind after a speech before a family values group earlier in the evening is the wrong thing to do. No matter how you slice it, gambling millions of dollars is a betrayal of Bennett's entire public career.
As Drug Czar, Bill Bennett outlined the problems drugs create in our communities. They drive families into poverty, increase domestic abuse, lead to higher crime rates, create higher unemployment, and drive a series of other social pathologies. He made a similar case with regard to the damaging effects of excess sex and violence in the television and music industries. In what way is gambling any different? Is it not true that gambling addicts wreck their own lives and the lives of those around them? Does gambling not lead to higher divorce rates, greater dependence on social services, and increased crime?
Thus far, Bennett's response has been to say that he hasn't hurt anyone with his gambling. He says he hasn't put his family in danger and that he's adhered to the law. Unless Bennett has gone libertarian his answer is lame at best and certainly no better than what the rich and famous have been telling us through their actions for years. In other words, it's okay to participate in socially destructive enterprises because he's sufficiently insulated by his wealth not to be affected by it. Forget the fact he's attacked fully analogous industries with great vigor. Forget that gambling enterprises have often been connected to organized crime. Forget that his habit helps support an enterprise that has wrecked thousands and thousands of families.
Aside from the lofty principles betrayed by Bennett's high dollar gambling, there are also major problems with the effect on public perception. As the news story spreads out into the public consciousness, charges of hypocrisy will fly and will stick to our once effective secular preacher. Smug liberals will feel confirmed in their stereotypical view of social conservatives as Elmer Gantryesque hucksters who can't walk their talk. Those who may have previously felt convicted by the force of Bennett's work will now shrug their shoulders and leave self-examination behind. Worst of all, Bill Clinton is smiling as yet another of his chief antagonists receives public comeuppance for his own sins. One wonders whether the conservative movement will offer us a single hero who does not have feet of clay.
But enough about a skeptical public and Bennett's enemies -- what of his friends? At a minimum, Bill Bennett will lose half of his fan base as the news gets out. Family policy councils all over the country who have invited him to speak conduct a constant war against the expansion of gambling as a method of raising government funds in their states. Southern Baptists and several other Protestant denominations take an aggressive anti-gambling stance. James Dobson's Focus on the Family empire and its massive radio audience will be extremely hesitant to work with Bennett again. It may turn out that Bennett's biggest gamble was deciding to blow off steam in casinos in the first place. He claims he may have come out close to even in his gambling activities. After he figures out what he's lost in future earnings from speeches and book royalties, he'll need to revise that estimate downward ... significantly.
Sadly, Bennett faces several interviews in which he'll be confronted with his own words as the accuser. Newsweek led its story off with a quote from The Book of Virtues: "We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing … [We] need to set definite boundaries on our appetites." In this case, he may have been prescient. It's too bad for his disappointed fans that he didn't heed his own advice.
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