The sad business of William Bennett requires discouraging commentary. There is, first, the existential point, which is that Bill Bennett is through. We speak, of course, of his public life. He is objectively discredited. He will not be proffered any public post by any president into the foreseeable future. He will not publish another book on another virtue, if there is any he has neglected to write about. It is possible that the books written by him on the subject, sitting in bookstores, will work their way to the remainder houses. These are the consequences of the damage he has done to himself. It could always be that his inherent talents will prevail over undiscriminating fate. There are those who hope it will be so.
A second question immediately arises: Has justice been done? Only in a raw parsing of the term, because what he did can correctly be deemed a private act immune from retributory sanction. It was wanton behavior, indisputably, but it was his own money being dissipated. The manner in which this was done raises eyebrows. If he had spent millions in decorating costs, his story would merely have been the tale of one more spendthrift. There is something about gambling when done other than on a scale associated with gin rummy and bridge, that is inherently censorious. Sensible criticism focuses on the unbounded character of his dissipation. When connected to stories of arrivals at casinos at three o’clock in the morning, to pump the $500 slot machines until dawn, what is depicted is addiction at pathological levels. The public thinks to reproach such conduct, not to okay it under the libertarian rubric.
That said, one turns to his critics. And the first question has to do with their startling apparent indifference to the means by which the disclosures were done. When Senator Gary Hart was photographed setting out with his mistress, there was justification of a kind because he had specifically taunted the press with the challenge to track him down and expose him. There was nothing of that nature, that we have been told, that justified worming one’s way into the records of casino transactions involving William Bennett. And that brings up the question: Who is handing down judgments against the casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City that gave out such information as his critics, in a different mode, would join in denouncing as arrant invasion of privacy? Even brothel keepers are bound by tradition to keeping the curtains drawn. Would Newsweek and The Washington Monthly publish the names of patrons of a bawdy house? Perhaps they would on the understanding that that which is revealed requires, by modern canons of journalism, to be publicized. But are we expected to applaud those who install secret cameras and listening devices in slot machines?
And the lesson to take from it all is more than simple addition to the infinite databank of sinners sinning. It is the evident delight taken by what has happened to William J. Bennett. It justifies itself by spurting out that we have here the simple joy of holding hypocrisy to the flame of public ridicule. There’s the procedural problem for Bennett critics who hold that private behavior is private behavior and should no more justify the impeachment of Bill Bennett than of Bill Clinton. But we cannot shake off the special animus here. What some critics are saying is that Mr. Bennett is the nation’s premier secular catechist of virtue, and that the bigger they come the harder they fall.
But that is a superficial examination of the matter. At root is a protest against the very credentials of virtue. And that isn’t something being done by libertarians, it is the creeping vine of philosophical libertinism. There are people out there who don’t want to say they are opposed to virtues, but who don’t really want other people around to postulate the need for virtue. John Adams said 200 years ago that the American experiment would not succeed unless the people cultivated virtue. To say such a thing in modern times is privately disdained as officious piety. To have engaged in the practice of praising virtue and to have profited from the commercial returns of doing so is deemed doubly offensive.
Preachers should limit their earnings (as Billy Graham once did, to $15,000 per year), or give it all away (as Archbishop Fulton Sheen did). A critical community beguiled by Playboy philosophy winces at declamations on virtue, and rejoices in exposures of weakness — even if unprepared to judge what was done as inherently reproachable behavior. What Clinton did, you see, wasn’t so bad, what was bad was getting caught; so with Bill Bennett, which loses to those critics the moral leverage available to those who are prepared to weigh these matters in terms of: virtue, and the absence of it.