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.