Politics & Policy

High-Stakes Gamble

The Bennett treatment.

Well, there must be a lull in the real war — the language of the ’90s Culture Wars is back: “hypocrisy,” “gotcha-politics,” “Bill Clinton,” etc.

For this, we have to thank moral crusader Bill Bennett and Newsweek’s crusading liberal columnist Jonathan Alter (both hardy veterans of the Impeachment Epoch) with newbie “trooper” Josh Green of The Washington Monthly thrown in for good measure.

Hypocrisy is the favorite charge that liberals hurl at conservatives. One can hear the glee in the voice of The Washington Monthly as it declares, “William J. Bennett has made millions lecturing people on morality — and blown it on gambling.” Ha. Ha.

The esteemed Jonah Goldberg addresses this in full in his Goldberg File and various reviewers have had their say in The Corner. Jonah’s basic point on the hypocrisy of hypocrisy-calling, Clinton-defending, liberals is largely correct. Sunday on CNN, I took the more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone, and but the more one thinks of it, the more the situation should be considered troubling.

As Rod Dreher noted yesterday:

I think gambling…is a scourge, though not necessarily a sin. Anyway, I don’t know how a believing Catholic, as Bennett professes to be, can justify putting millions of dollars into the pockets of casinos, even if it never directly hurt his family. Christians believe it a moral imperative that we be good stewards of the resources God has given us. This is not to say that every spare farthing has to go into the poor box, but throwing away gargantuan sums…at casinos is excessive by anyone’s standards, to say nothing of the standards of a man who has made a fortune, and a name for himself, preaching moral rigor.

Like Rod, I’ve seen in my own family what compulsive gambling can do and it’s not pretty. Like alcoholism and drug use, it can lead to divorce and dysfunctional families. No, that history hasn’t prevented me from going with friends to bachelor parties in Vegas and playing a couple of blackjack hands, but the possible dangers were never out of mind.

Yes, moralizing crosses the political spectrum: No one is innocent. Any of us who are in the public arena and make judgments of one sort of or another can be called hypocrites for some failing or another. But not all judgment-makers are the same.

Compare Bill Bennett, as has been done before, with Jesse Jackson, i.e. as a “Moral Leader” for a specific part of the political spectrum (interestingly, both have also been “guilty” of being willing to talk good games, but then ducked when the opportunity arose to run for winnable, electable office). Jackson’s various political and business shenanigans had been the source of much media copy for years.

But it wasn’t until the 2000 revelation that he had a mistress and a child out of wedlock that the veneer came completely off Jackson. As a Left-wing arbiter of morality, he was exposed as the ultimate hypocrite. He may still shake down gullible Wall Street firms, but not even true liberal organizations, let alone the general public, take the man seriously any more.

Has Bill Bennett reached that point with these revelations? Perhaps. No, legal gambling is not as serious as cheating on your wife or having a child out of wedlock. But when certain public figures use the tropes of moral suasion to a higher degree than others, they are naturally held to a higher account. Their good name and ability to appeal to certain objective standards is their most valued currency.

Bennett made millions as the voice of morality in the conservative movement and excessive gambling is a vice, regardless of whether he talked about it or not. True, Bennett did not engage in illegal activity. But the fact that big-stakes gambling is more illegal than legal in the United States should tell us something. The fact that casino-industry lobbyists have the need to call their product the more benign-sounding “gaming” shows they know that the word “gambling” is seen as something problematic at the very least. (One could even imagine a Bill Bennett saying that the industry has been “shamed” out of saying what they truly are.)

It’s ironic that former drug czar Bill Bennett would find himself under fire over gambling since studies suggest that addictions to various behaviors and substances may have a similar root cause — how the body regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine.

In other words, the same pleasure centers in the brain stoked by various illegal drugs get amped when a compulsive gambler is on a serious streak. Picturing Bill Bennett jacking the one-armed bandit for hours on end is very disturbing, and that’s not meant for cheap laughs either. Jonah is right that Bennett may be guilty more of a “political” sin than a “moral” one, but that doesn’t necessarily make it much better.

It’s good that Bennett has declared that he is never going to gamble again, though the statement is somewhat problematic in and of itself. How many times have we seen public figures make such announcements — after they’ve been “caught” with their hands in the cookie jar? Does he recognize that he may have a true problem — or is it just for face- and money-saving purposes (something that Bennett must fear, as The American Spectator quite rightly observes)?

But, far more importantly, if Bennett’s problem is as serious as it appears, those who respect the man should hope he seeks some counseling because most addicts have difficulty stopping cold turkey.

Here’s hoping that Bill Bennett overcomes this apparent compulsion. He’s seen as a leader to many. Leadership, like many virtues, requires a certain amount of sacrifice. America needs all the leaders it can get right now.


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