LA TIMES: Vices and Virtues:William Bennett lost millions on slots and video poker. Detractors say the losses signal a moralist's fall from grace

Author: Mary McNamara

It is just too delicious — the image of the man who wrote not only “The Book of Virtues” but “The Children’s Book of Virtues” pulling into Las Vegas in his comped limo, bags whisked to his comped high-roller’s suite while he heads into the blaring, bleating belly of the beast to spend hours pumping thousands of dollars into the slots.p. Turns out William J. Bennett, who considers passing judgment on the personal lives of our leaders a moral duty and who all but called for President Clinton’s head on a platter in “The Death of Outrage,” is a high-stakes gambler. The pulpit bully who took down the moral predilections of single parents, working mothers, divorced couples and gays in “The Broken Hearth,” the man who, despite rather formidable personal girth, preaches against those “ruled by appetite,” has, according to Newsweek and the Washington Monthly, dropped as much as 8 million bucks in high-stakes gambling over the last 10 years.

How much fun is that ?

Bennett’s fall from grace was camera perfect, and no doubt he’ll get big points from the judges for the spin of his attempted recovery. Gambling is legal, he quickly pointed out, at least where he did it. And he never put his family in danger. And it wasn’t $8 million, it was “large sums of money.” Furthermore, he always paid taxes on his winnings and, Atlantic City and Las Vegas being the charitable institutions they are, he pretty much “always broke even.”

If that weren’t intoxicating enough for his many detractors, within minutes of serving up this layer cake of denial, Bennett made a public vow that his gambling days are over because “this is not the example I want to set.”

Or as Kenny’ll tell you, you gotta know when to walk away, and know when to run .

Many have rushed to Bennett’s rhetorical side, repeating that the man did nothing illegal and that the gleeful shouts of “hypocrite” are but the shrill chatterings of those who, according to syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, “never liked imposing a moral code on themselves.”

One way or another, “the Bennett situation” has brightened conversation over dinner tables and beer steins around the world — a report of his vow to quit appeared in the Arab Times. Everywhere folks are discussing the place gambling holds in the American landscape — if not a virtue, is it truly a vice? — the dangers of public moralizing and the jaw-dropping implications of losing 8 million bucks, $8 million, on slots and video poker. If only it had been lottery tickets, he could have argued he was supporting the education system.

In Las Vegas, a scene of the non-crime, many people wished that Bennett had been a bit more manly about having his habits exposed, following the example of other public figures who, when called on their propensity for games of chance, told the press to pay, play or get lost.

“Gambling has come out of the closet in the last 10 years,” said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, a newsletter that tracks local news and trends. “It’s not considered a horrible thing to do. You see that in its legalization across the country — casinos, card clubs, the lottery.” Curtis himself would have liked to see Bennett stand his ground. “But given what he has stood for,” Curtis said, “it’s a ticklish proposition. He needs to protect his brand.”

A sin of excess

As a Catholic, Bennett has a lot of religious wiggle room — the church, according to Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame , has “a high tolerance for gambling.” Though perhaps not as high as Bennett took things.

“In standard Catholic theology,” Cunningham said, “there are many things that by excess become sinful.”

Including, he added, the delight others are taking in Bennett’s downfall.

“The greatest sin here,” he said, “at least by the old theological standards, may be morose delectation — the joy felt by people watching this bumptious, arrogant moralizer get caught at the video poker machine.”

That there are no tragic proportions to the tale — “unless you count the difficulty Bennett may now have charging $50,000 for a lecture on morality” — has helped keep the conversation going, Cunningham said. No animals or children were harmed in the making of this scandal, so we feel no remorse in talking about it excessively.

Excess is exactly what has given the story so much buzz. No one is buying Bennett’s claim that he broke even — “You can’t play the slots or even video poker at that level and break even,” said Curtis. Even if the $8 million is off, documents procured by Newsweek have Bennett wiring $1.4 million to one casino. Many Americans have lost a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars over the years on games of chance, but $1.4 million? Well, Curtis said, you have to look at what Bennett’s worth. “[That sum] may be to him what $800 is to another person — the amount they’re willing to pay for entertainment.”

That’s nonsense, said Randy Cohen, who writes an ethics column for the New York Times Magazine. Moderation, which Bennett, and just about every philosopher since Aristotle, has touted as a moral imperative, is not some math equation involving a percentage of one’s income. “A rich person who uses 50 bars of soap to take a shower is not committing a moderate act,” Cohen said. “It may be an affordable act, but it is not moderate.”

Although Cohen does not even attempt to disguise the glee he feels at Bennett’s downfall — “is there a person whose soul is so dead that he cannot delight in this?” he asked — he takes no issue with gambling per se.

“Gambling is not a vice,” he said. “Bennett’s moral problem is not his gambling, his moral problem is hypocrisy.”

In answering this, the obvious charge, Bennett and his supporters have been quick to point out that he has never addressed the morality of gambling in any of his books or many speaking engagements. But according to Cohen, the fact that Bennett never publicly denied gambling or included it in his long list of moral shortcomings is a laughable defense. “I’d like to see a mass murderer try that one in court — ‘I never said I wasn’t killing a lot of people, your honor.’”

“William Bennett,” Cohen said, “has consistently touted a package of values that traditionally condemns gambling and supported organizations that explicitly do so. The reason he personally never addressed the issue is now perfectly clear — because he’s a gambler.”

Err and grow

Not that that’s a bad thing. Necessarily. What troubles Jackson Lears, a Rutgers history professor and author of “Something for Nothing: Luck in America” (Viking/Penguin), is not Bennett’s participation in the gambling life but his seeming inability to learn anything from it. Lears’ book looks at gambling less as a vice than as a worldview, the “culture of chance,” he calls it, which has infused the American mythmaking machine since the very beginning.

“This country has always been fascinated by ‘the breaks,’ " he said. “The risk-taking entrepreneur is a cultural hero; look at day traders — they were nothing but compulsive gamblers, and they became an icon of the age.”

Gambling, he said, has been vilified in part because it is a sin against the Protestant ethic-driven culture of control. While Lears does not dispute that compulsive gambling can cause great damage to people, families and even society, he also sees an admirable tolerance among those who regularly stake their fortunes on chance.

“Gamblers rarely pass by someone who is tapped out,” Lears said. “They know how quickly things can turn. And in helping each other, they rarely ask questions, rarely ask if someone deserves help. Losing so much money,” Lears said of Bennett, “what thoughts should have gone through his head about how quickly things can slide, about the vagaries of chance.”

Instead, he said, Bennett has been a major proponent of the right-wing belief that financial success is an indication of moral righteousness. “This could have been a much better story,” Lears added. “It could have been about how [Bennett] learned about tolerance and forgiveness from his own failings.”

But those lessons are difficult to learn standing alone in front of a machine, and it is the image of Bennett as the solitary obsessed slots player that has captured the imagination of so many. “There he is,” Cohen said, “just pulling that lever for hours and hours. Could it be more bleak, more meager, more delightful?”

If the opinion pages, talk radio shows and general coffeehouse chatter can be believed, such delight knows no moderation.

May 9,2003

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