Bennett’s Real Problem
Was he thinking?


As NRO readers are fully aware, William Bennett has received the Big Flak over revelations that he’s a high roller, so much so that he’s sworn off the dice. “It is true that I have gambled large sums of money,” Bennett announced Monday. “I have also complied with all laws on reporting wins and losses. Nevertheless, I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I wish to set.”

There is much pain here. Being chased away from your pleasures, after all, is no one’s idea of fun. One thinks of poor tipplers through the ages who have been forced to take the pledge by nagging wives, or contemporary smokers under siege by vice officer Bloomberg. Suddenly, one is deprived of a source of comfort, solace, and even strength. The universe is a much colder place.

Yet such is the hand fate has dealt, and Bennett must make the most of it. As it happens, staying out of the casinos should be a blessing to Bennett, both in a personal and professional sense. At the same time, deep damage has been done — more damage, in fact, than is widely acknowledged.

First off, these revelations can’t be good for business. While many a Bennett defender has pointed out that gambling is no absolute moral horror, it’s safe to say that lots of Bennett’s supporters don’t agree. Quite the contrary. They consider gambling the devil’s snare — a “something for nothing” scheme that, among other things, undermines respect for honest labor. That is especially true at the level Bennett played. Church bingo is one thing, and is mostly a way for churches to raise funds. Tossing around hundreds of thousands during a night at the casinos is quite another. That Bennett allegedly wagered far more money in the past several years than most Americans will ever make in their nine-to-five puts him in a new light.

Virtue, of course, is a tough business, and all who enter should give up any hope of mercy should anything even approaching vice be detected. This is especially true when you make 50 grand per speaking engagement, worked for a Republican president, and went after Bill Clinton with supreme gusto. Clinton has no doubt welcomed these revelations with even more glee than Michael Kinsley. To Bennett that may be the worst cut off all.

Others of us, however, have other problems with these revelations. For one thing, the casino industry pumps a lot of money into politics. Timothy O’Brien, author of Bad Bet, said the industry put at least $4.5 million into national campaigns between 1992 and 1996, making gambling “a political force at the federal level on a par with the National Rifle Association and the United Automobile Workers.” Those contributions are rising, and lots of that money goes to people at war with everything Bennett stands for.

But the aspect of these revelations most damaging to Bennett, at least to some of us, is that they totally undermine the notion that Bennett is a thinking man. Even those who found him something of a scold could at least admit that he had an active brain. This guy studied philosophy, after all.

Yet the games he preferred — video poker and slots — represent gambling for dummies. You can teach a blind, pin-headed monkey to play the slots, and video poker isn’t much better. It’s not for nothing that video poker is called the crack cocaine of gambling. People can become so enthralled they leave their kids in locked cars, where they are duly broiled to death.

These solitary games require none of the skills required of the true gambler. The true gambler — the thinking gambler — is found at the card table. Indeed, the man who triumphs at five-card stud is a formidable human being, one who has taught himself how to read body language, how to bluff, and how not to sweat when the mortgage is on the line — and when a loss might mean sending his wife and daughters into prostitution.

The other beauty of true poker is that it can be played far from the public eye, and off the taxman’s ledger. These games are also occasion for good conversation, moderate alcohol consumption, and all around good fellowship. In short, true poker has many virtues that videos and slots totally lack.

Luckily for Brother Bennett, America is a land of second, third, and fourth acts. In time, and with the proper application of the p.r. arts, the sheep can be returned to the fold — or, more to the point, to the lecture hall and bookstores. Winning back intellectual respect, however, will be a tougher assignment. I’m putting the odds at 3-5.

Dave Shiflett is a member of the White House Writers Group.