Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Italy's flamboyant and well-heeled Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is currently standing trial on charges that he bribed judges in the pursuit of a 1985 deal to privatize the state food and catering company. (Note to conservatives: Privatization is not without its dangers! On the other hand, the state food and catering company? Sheesh!) Berlusconi says he is the victim of persecution by leftist judges. And today he called for his trial to be suspended so that the Italian parliament could reinstate immunity for all high-ranking pols. "We must intervene," he said today, "but not to help me as Prime Minister to pass the test of our EU presidency ... " (Italy is about to assume the rotating EU presidency.)

How's that for selflessness!

For all I know, Berlusconi may be right: maybe he is being persecuted by leftist judges. But I'd hate to think that Italian democracy -- always a rather delicate plant -- had fallen so low as to be subject to a plot in which interested politicians and partial judges tried to use the courts to toss out a popularly-elected national leader!

How could such a state even call itself a democracy?

Oh the humanity ...

Sometimes the often-breathless lead summary of Chris Nelson's always invaluable Nelson Report is worth passing on in toto ...

Summary: U.S. stock market, Dollar matched…until Bush's UN speech on Iraq. But since October, foreign exchange markets stopped using U.S. stocks as proxy for financing U.S. current account deficit. Lessons: will Neo-con ambitions be curtailed by the weak link of U.S. debt? Will BOJ see weak Dollar as reason for Yen intervention, not structural reform? Effect on other U.S. trade partners? In meantime, Federal Reserve in a bit of trap…using the "deflation" word risks deflationary expectations in the markets.

Chile FTA…support from trade community, and lack of complaints from Capitol Hill, means Chile "punishment" for Iraq War UN vote being lifted. Expect Chile, Singapore FTA's together in June.

Cabinet meeting on N. Korea…Powell skips out to prior UN meeting, so no policy swings possible.

Nelson notes that in the cabinet meeting today Powell was a no-show, leaving Jim Kelly to face Rumsfeld and Cheney on his own. Ouch ...

First Kelly has to spend all that time in Chez-SARS. Now this? The guy once called me a practitioner of "hack journalism." But even I don't think he deserves this.

As far as I'm concerned, with Bill Bennett's statement from Monday saying his gambling set a bad example, the story is over. And I hadn't planned to write any more about it. But I do need to write a few lines about the astonishing column James McManus wrote on Tuesday's Times' OpEd page: "Virtues, Values and Vegas."

Quite apart from anything to do with Bill Bennett, this piece struck me as one of the most vacuous and shallow pieces of writing I've seen in a very long time. (Actually, it was a day of highs and lows for the Times' OpEd page: Krugman's and Kristof's columns were both excellent.) I just want to note two portions of the McManus piece: the first an error of fact, the second an error of humanity.

In the third and fourth grafs, McManus writes ...

More important, the authors admit that it's impossible for them to determine whether Mr. Bennett's in the black or the red as a player. If he has legally put $8 million in play over the course of a decade, it's not the same as risking that amount, let alone losing it, in a weekend. Playing slot machines, blackjack or video poker may involve cycling a few hundred thousand into action, but for practical purposes a gambler is risking only a small fraction of that amount, since no one loses every spin or hand.
This is just dead wrong on the facts.

The authors didn't say Bennett put $8 million "in play." Nor did they get that figure of $8 million by adding up Bennett's losses without figuring in his winnings.

What they had were several spans of time over which they had records for Bennett's winnings and losses. Add all those spans of time together and they netted out at a loss of some $8 million. One of those spans of time, as both the Newsweek and Washington Monthly articles note, was 18 months.

The reason the articles could not say definitively that Bennett was a net money loser on gambling over time is that it's possible there were other spans of time -- say some other 18 month period -- where he was a big net winner. That seems improbable, but not impossible. The particulars of this don't really matter now, since Bennett has pretty much put an end to the whole thing. But McManus simply misstated what the stories said.

The more stunning stuff comes in grafs six and seven ...

For some people, however, betting pennies on tiddlywinks or 10 bucks on Pick 4 constitutes a "gambling problem." They sniff that gamblers are venal because "they want something for nothing." Yeah, well, of course we do. Players and nonplayers alike get aced out of cherished, indispensable things all the time and get zip in return, so it seems only reasonable to want to balance the equation a little. All of us gamble. Air travel, dating, investments, education, even driving or walking to work are not for the risk-averse. Vastly more is at stake when conceiving a child than when Mr. Bennett plays video poker, yet married couples are treated to no finger-jabbing sermons when they roll the dice on reproduction.
As I've said, I don't think much one way or another about gambling. But I'm not sure I've read a group of sentences more fatuous or morally shrunken as these in some time. Gambling may be harmless fun, but can't you distinguish between that sort of risk and the one people take when they bring a new life into the world?

Who is this guy?

Mike Kinsley has the best piece I've seen on this whole Bill Bennett flap. And he candidly states what the real story here is: no one likes a stuffed shirt. Are people happy to pile on when someone so preachy takes a hit? Yes, of course, they are. That's human nature. And frankly it's a good part of it. I don't even want to link to some of the wildly intemperate attacks on the authors of the piece that I've seen today. But let's just make this point: many are now saying that it's impossible for anyone to talk about the importance of morality in the public sphere without themselves getting scrutinized for every possible personal lapse. I don't think this is true. Nor do I think this is really what Bennett's done. Bennett hasn't just piped up on behalf of morality in general. He's generally been the first in line to give a kick in the pants to individual people who've fallen short. That's a big difference. On this whole matter the wild fury of Bennett's defenders tells the story.

As I already noted in yesterday's post, I think the 'he never criticized gambling' defense of Bill Bennett is pretty feeble. For the moment, though, let's concede this: he never criticized gambling. But how about telling the truth? Did he ever mention that?

There's a lot we don't know about the details of Bennett's gambling. And on their own, perhaps who cares about the details. But in his responses to Newsweek's Jon Alter, Bennett said: "Over 10 years, I’d say I’ve come out pretty close to even." Now, 'pretty close' leaves lots of room for wiggle. But Bennett is clearly telling us he's basically come out even, that he hasn't been a consistent loser of money as a gambler.

Bennett also said that he gambles almost entirely on slot machines and video poker. Now, just given how slot machines work, it seems very hard to believe that anyone playing slots wouldn't lose money over time. And, if you were working with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, it's pretty hard to figure how you wouldn't lose a lot of money. This isn't guesswork or speculation. It's statistics. (Remember: casinos run the slots pretty much on a profit basis...)

Video poker is a little less clear-cut, since it's not pure chance.

But how believable is it that Bennett has come out even or close to even in a decade of very high stakes gambling on games in which little or no skill is involved? Bear in mind that the Newsweek and Washington Monthly articles note documentation of an 18 month period in which ...

there were only a few occasions when Bennett turned in chips—worth about $30,000 or $40,000—at the end of an evening. Most of the time, he drew down his line of credit, often substantially. A casino source, hearing of Bennett’s claim to breaking even on slots over 10 years, just laughed.
Perhaps there were other year or two periods in which Bennett won big. But the passage above is about what you'd expect -- having some occasional big wins, but on balance losing money most of the time.

You have to keep tax records of wins and losses when you play high-stakes like Bennett does. So he knows -- or could easily find out -- how much he's won or lost over the years. I don't think Bennett's under any obligation to tell anyone how much money he's lost in Vegas and Atlantic City. But he's gone on record saying something that is at best extremely improbable. That seems very fair to point out.

Since everyone is getting in on the act, let me say a few things about the brouhaha over Bill Bennett and gambling. First, I need to say that I have a bit of a conflict since I have a professional relationship with The Washington Monthly, the magazine that broke the story. Having said that, I think the chorus of defenses of Bennett ring rather hollow. I don't really have a feeling one way or another about gambling. In fact, as far as I can remember I don't think I've ever gambled -- not even pulling a slot machine. That's certainly not a matter of scruple. I just don't think I've ever understood the attraction or, for that matter, had many opportunities. Or maybe it's just because I spent most of my twenties as a starving graduate student and couldn't understand parting with money without the guarantee of getting something in return.

However that may be, it's all a roundabout way of saying I don't really care that much about gambling one way or another. But I think it's entirely appropriate to report that Bennett is such a big-time gambler even if it would be inappropriate or simply irrelevant to report such information about most others. The reason, I think, scarcely requires explanation: Bennett spent the last dozen or more years not only being a big hawker of 'morality,' but also a prime advocate of the proposition that there is an unbroken thread connecting our private habits to our public selves and that we -- the media, the chatterers, everyone -- should happily pull on that thread and see what we find.

I cannot think of a public figure who has been exposed over some private embarrassment in recent years -- save a few political allies, perhaps -- for whom a self-satisfied Bennett has not happily hopped on to Larry King or Tim Russert or Chris Matthews and droned on with shallow, grandstanding moralism, eagerly wrenching this or that person's private embarrassment into some cheap political point.

This isn't a matter of payback or two wrongs making a right, just treating Bennett to the standard he's made a living off setting for everyone else.

Now, two key points have been made in B(2)'s defense. One is that he didn't lose so much money as to endanger the well-being of his family. Or, as Bennett himself said, that he can 'handle it.' (Isn't this what we hear from recreational drug users, who hold down jobs and have intact families?) I guess this is so. But it sounds precisely like the sort of explanation or excuse the old Bill Bennett would never stand for. More to the point, money is a relative thing. The virtue racket has evidently made Bennett a very wealthy man, wealthy enough that he can apparently afford to lose millions of dollars on slot machines and still maintain a high standard of living for himself and his family. Good for him. But how much of your family's money is it responsible to play away on the slots? Bennett would have to be astoundingly wealthy for $8 million in losses to be an insignificant dent on his family's net worth.

The other point made in Bennett's defense is that he may have been an offensive sermonizer on all sorts of vices, but this is the one vice he left alone. So you can hardly charge him with hypocrisy. To me it's seems just the opposite. Bennett goes off on every 'vice' there is, save the one he seems to indulge. That seems very much like cutting himself the break he cuts no one else. I'm sure everyone would like to have their own weakness excepted from the list. But which of Bennett's other targets gets that chance?

For my part, I'd say leave everyone's issues to them and theirs. (On these matters, I'll take Mencken's conservatism over Bennett's any -- and every -- day.) But those aren't the Bill Bennett rules, are they? Now he wants them to be. Too bad.

As for myself, I think Bennett's greatest offense has been to American English. People end up calling him a 'virtuecrat,' a 'culture warrior,' 'morality-watchdog' or as Larry King naively but naively-aptly calls him, 'Mr.Morality." (Bennett always rankles at this, though Larry never seems to understand why. It's a perfect example of Larry's idiot-savantism, which leads him to get some things blisteringly right without quite seeming to know it.) We used to have a host of words to describe the likes of Bill Bennett: prig, bluenose, Comstock, stuffed-shirt. Euphonious, and to the point. But Bennett's racket has pretty much driven those words underground. Like I said, gimme that Menckenian conservatism any day.

Okay, it's corny and a touch obnoxious. But just for today the change to the site marquee is my gift to myself. I pulled an all-nighter Wednesday night nursing my ancient HP 4L laser printer into churning out the two final copies of my dissertation manuscript. Then I hopped on the 6 AM train from DC to Providence to actually turn the thing in. By the time I got there most of the signatures and forms that I thought I might have to take care of had already gotten done. So it was largely a matter of physically walking the thing over to the graduate school offices and doing the actual sign in. In any case, it's finally, officially, completely done.

In a sense a dissertation is just a really long paper (I think the grand total was 326 pages, in this case). But one works on it for so long that all sorts of psychological mumbo-jumbo gets bound up in it. When I was signing it in yesterday, and the person who signs it in told me that everything on the checklist was covered, I think I asked two or three times if she was sure there wasn't any other form that needed to be turned in. Then, as I was walking out of her office ... "So, you're sure. Nothing else?" "Yes, I'm sure. That's it. You're done." I had a hard time not going back and asking again as I was walking down the hallway. But then I thought, what profiteth a man to gain his Ph.D. if he loses his dignity in the process of turning it in?

Some really uncomfortable information coming out later today about one of conservatism's leading moralizers. Stay tuned for the link...