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You've got to know when to fold 'em: Lessons for Bill Bennett

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 5, 2003

William J. Bennett may exhort Americans to return to the values their parents taught them, but he is not your father's social conservative. He's probably the only crusader for traditional values who has dated Janis Joplin and his best-selling Book of Virtues helped keep the idea that character counts front and center during the Clinton era.

William J. BennettTough talking but thoughtful and religious without being preachy, Bennett moved from secretary of education in the Reagan administration and drug czar in the first Bush administration to being one of the right's most prominent spokesmen. On television talk shows and discussion panels, he demonstrated solid debating skills and a penchant for articulating even controversial conservative positions in a manner that was reassuring to moderates.

Yet Bennett has never been a stranger to controversy. He became a public figure in one of the earliest incidents in the grudge match between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, when President Reagan passed over the more established paleo scholar Mel Bradford to name Bennett chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities. In that post, he consistently irritated trendy academic liberals. When he moved onto the Education Department, he became the bane of public teacher's unions for his advocacy of standards, charter schools, vouchers and other reforms once consigned to the offices and white papers of free-market think tanks. He became the conservative that libertarians love to hate when, both during and after his service under the elder George Bush, he emerged as a passionate apologist for the War on Drugs.

But for the last decade, Bennett has been the traditionalist yang to Jack Kemp's optimistic supply-side yin at their Empower America think tank. He upheld traditional sexuality morality during the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the debate over gay marriage. He continued to take a hard line against drugs. He rallied patriotic Americans on behalf of the war on terror. And he has consistently torn down Americans' most common vices and upheld virtues. The key to Bennett's moral conservatism has always been self-restraint, control of the human appetite.

Now it comes to pass, according to reports by Newsweek and The Washington Monthly, that Bennett has all this time been a high-stakes gambler. As Joshua Green's story "The Bookie of Virtue" in The Washington Monthly puts it, Bennett has "made millions lecturing people on morality -- and blown it on gambling."

According to these reports, Bennett's total gambling losses come out at more than $8 million. One stretch of gambling showed him visiting casinos for two to three days at a time and having a $200,000 line of credit at several of them. Green wrote, "The documents show that in one two-month period, Bennett wired more than $1.4 million to cover losses." This goes well beyond the occasional poker games with William Renquhist, Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork reported by the Washington Times several years ago.

My initial reaction to this news, found in my postings on Enter Stage Right's Musings blog, was that it was no big deal. Politically, I knew liberals would lampoon Bennett while some of his evangelical fans and supporters would be disappointed. But so what if a rich guy wanted to spend huge sums of money that he and his family don't need in this fashion?

There are some reasons why this could prove harmful to Bennett's message, which is problematic insofar as parts of that message are valid. Hypocrisy doesn't invalidate sound moral principles, but a person who makes it a point to promote those principles – a "propagandist for virtue indoctrination," to quote Steve Sailer – ought to show an interest in promoting them across the board, not simply pointing out the specks in other people's eyes while ignoring the planks in your own. Bennett's advocacy of the family, personal responsibility and character is important. His Index of Leading Cultural Indicators is valuable reading and an important rejoinder to those who believe in Economic Man and don't look beyond the GDP. Family cohesion, especially the number of children who have a loving mother and father, is as important to what kind of country we are as our productivity rates.

While Bennett has never been particularly outspoken about gambling, Empower America has opposed expanding legalized gambling. So have many organizations he is close to, like the Christian Coalition. This will likely raise criticism that Bennett wishes to take choices away from others that he feels he can make for himself.

After all, his most publicly pertinent vice is an excessive reliance on the state to do what could perhaps be done instead by civil society. On his blog TheAgitator.com, writer Radley Balko contrasts Bennett's view that his exorbitant gambling expenses are no problem with his opposition to medical marijuana: "Your vices – sinful, regretful, damnable. My vices – not so bad. The guy lost $1.4 million in one two-month stretch. But he doesn't have a problem. Cancer patients who want to smoke marijuana – they're the ones who have problems." Many conservatives have a tendency to believe that everything that is wrong, or even wrong in excess, should be illegal; conversely, libertarians have a tendency to believe that everything that is or should be legal is right. Neither extreme is correct.

Nobody's perfect and commentators are likely to overreact to this story. I like a drink and have been known to occasionally waste money, things that others might consider vices and inconsistent with such traditional conservative values as thrift, self-restraint and sobriety. But, consistent with the style of The Book of Virtues, there are a couple of lessons we can draw from this news story.

First, moral teachers have an obligation to hold themselves to a higher standard than other people. This is because even apparent inconsistencies can have the effect of undermining the teacher's whole message. Sometimes the weaker brother must be taken into consideration before acting.

Second, vices should not necessarily be treated as crimes. This is likely to be the less remarked upon lesson. The world did not come to an end because Bennett legally gambled. If he does in fact have a problem, it will not be resolved because Congress passed a new law or the federal government threw him in jail. The law can be a moral teacher, but when it results in overly authoritative government it can itself result in immoral things.

The public policies Bennett advocates are not always wise or even consistent with constitutionally limited government. But he has often valued the right things and affirmed important truths. His message doesn't have to be undermined; he could instead take this as an opportunity to become a more effective messenger.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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