Gov. George W. Bush hates gambling, he says. Hates it. "I've got a strong anti-gambling record in my state of Texas," Bush proclaimed to a conservative Republican audience during the Jan. 7 South Carolina debate.
"Casino gambling is not OK. It has ruined the lives of too many adults and it can do the same thing to our children," Bush said last July.
Bush doesn't accept contributions from gaming industry PACs, a Bush spokesman says. Bush hasn't even set foot in the gambling-friendly state of Nevada as a candidate.
Until Thursday, that is, when the Texas governor is scheduled to pop into the Lake Tahoe area for a $1,000-a-plate luncheon hosted by gambling and gaming folks that should net his campaign $250,000.
The fundraiser may be a jackpot for Bush, but it's one that, according to critics, comes with an all-you-can eat buffet table of rank hypocrisy. Because the fundraiser -- and its timing, after Bush has secured the GOP nomination -- are raising some eyebrows among those who previously took Bush on his anti-gambling word.
After all, many Christian conservatives have long had nothing but antipathy for cash from the slots. In an October 1998 story in Business Week that described Bush as "an outspoken foe" of gambling, Gary Bauer said Republicans holding fundraisers for gaming cash was tantamount to "sticking their finger in the eyes of a whole lot of people around the country that they depend on every November." In the same story, former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed -- back before he was on the Bush for President payroll as an advisor -- said, "Any presidential candidate who receives casino support is going to come under heavy fire."
During the GOP primaries, back when Bush was shoring up his conservative credentials, the GOP front-runner embraced the image of the stereotypical killjoy town preacher-man whenever gambling was discussed. It's a role that fit Bush quite well, according to Cathie Adams, president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum. "The governor has stood very strong against gambling in the state of Texas and I have supported him 100 percent in that arena," she says.
On Thursday, that role will no doubt be shed as Bush enters Nevada. In a Lake Tahoe-area fundraiser closed to the press, the Bush campaign will be buoyed by the hospitality of Larry Ruvo, senior managing director of the Las Vegas-based Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, the state's largest liquor distributorship -- which Ruvo launched in the 1960s with Vegas kingpin Steve Wynn of Mirage Resorts.
"Ruvo got very, very wealthy by selling booze to casinos," says Jon Ralston, a nonpartisan Nevada political analyst and columnist for the Las Vegas Sun.
Members of the host committee for the luncheon, located at the Old Barn at Shakespeare Ranch in Glenbrook, Nev., include: Chuck Mathewson, chairman of International Gaming Technology (IGT), the Reno-based manufacturer of slot machines; Greg Ferraro of R&R Partners, who lobbies and does advertising for the casinos and the gaming industry; former Lt. Gov. Robert Cashell, a casino owner; and Sig Rogich, a well-known and high-powered political and gaming P.R. consultant, as well as a Bush "Pioneer" -- meaning he's already raised at least $100,000 for Bush's campaign.
Ruvo's partner in the Glenbrook property is Harvey Whittemore, regarded as the emperor of Nevada's 700 lobbyists, with clients including Mirage Resorts Inc., the Nevada Resort Association and IGT.
Almost everyone in politics takes gambling money these days. The Democratic and Republican National Committees stand to take in more than the $6.2 million the industry gave to D.C.-based pols in the last election cycle, according to one study.
Mirage Resorts is one of the biggest soft-money donors around, having given $310,000 to the Republican Party and $253,621 to the Democrats.
Both Bush and Vice President Al Gore have taken money from individuals in the casino and gaming industry, but according to estimates by the Center for Responsive Politics, it's not even close. Even before Thursday's quarter-mil fundraiser, Gore has received $31,500 from such interests, while Bush has garnered $104,950.
But, of course, only one of the two candidates has made a point of telling voters about his "strong anti-gambling record."
"Individuals are free to express their own opinion," says Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, who reiterates that his boss doesn't accept money from gaming PACs.
Others don't buy the differentiation.
"It shows that the influence of money has overweighed what we consider to be a compelling social issue, the explosion of gambling," says Tom Grey, a Methodist minister and executive director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. "In that regard I'm very disappointed."
"It's a destructive, inhumane, predatory industry," says Ron Reno, a senior research analyst with Focus on the Family, a conservative group that claims 2.5 million constituents. "We have a number of moral qualms with gambling, ranging from the way it preys disproportionately on the poor to the whole 'something for nothing' mentality that it engenders. The money that comes from that is tainted, and it tends to taint the judgment of the politicians who receive it. For politicians -- and especially those running for the highest office in the land -- one would hope that their rhetoric would match their actions. If they understand gambling to be the destructive force it actually is, one would hope that they would avoid taking any money from that industry."
The Bush campaign argues that the goals of the money donors are irrelevant to Bush's stance on any issue. "Gov. Bush welcomes the support of all Americans who support his compassionate conservative agenda," says McClellan. "He has always been consistent in his views and his philosophy; he has made his views [on gambling] very clear. As governor of Texas he is opposed to gambling for Texas."
Grey concurs and is quick to point out that Bush has a very anti-gambling record as governor. But when it comes to the morality he sees at play in Bush's big-bucks Lake Tahoe fundraiser, "He needs to sort that out." Bush is "taking the money and not rendering a verdict on the social morality. You can't be a little bit pregnant."
Maybe not, but Bush is sure trying.
"Bush has been an incredible hypocrite on this issue," Ralston says. "You can't say you're against something for moral reasons and then take money from people who make money from that same thing."
Back when Bush was fending off a challenge from Arizona Sen. John McCain, Bush and his surrogates were lambasting the senator for every offense they could imagine -- several clear shots were taken at McCain as a supposed friend of gambling.
A February Bush for President mailing said McCain claims that "he battles the special interests but has received $51,700 from gambling interests." The flier sneered: "No wonder the Las Vegas Sun said McCain may be the candidate friendliest to the gambling industry."
(When it is pointed out to Bush spokesman McClellan that Bush slammed McCain for receiving "$51,700 from gambling interests," individual gifts as well as corporate donations -- and not $51,700 specifically from gambling PACs -- he says he does not want to revisit the primary fight with McCain.)
Bush's allies also got into the act. A Christian Coalition "voter guide" -- hundreds of thousands of which were distributed, strictly on an educational basis, of course -- gave the candidates' positions on the "prohibition of campaign contributions from any gambling operators or their vendors." McCain was lumped together with Democrats Gore and Bill Bradley as opposing such a prohibition, while Bush was cited as supporting a ban on campaign contributions from gambling interests.
This despite the fact that, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bush had received at that point far more gambling-interest cash than McCain, Gore or Bradley. Around the time of the South Carolina primary, on Feb. 19, Bush had received $95,450 in campaign contributions from gambling interests, McCain had garnered $69,312, Gore $25,250 and Bradley $8,500.
Bush not only took strong stands against gambling, he avoided all forays into the state. Nevada is one of only six states Bush had yet to visit as a candidate as of Wednesday. Since Bush didn't find his map to Nevada until recently, Democrats snipe, GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn had to fly to Utah to endorse him.
But while Bush has avoided all entries into the state, his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, ponied right up to the tables. Last year, she held a fundraiser for her son in Las Vegas itself, taking checks amounting to around $60,000 from Steve Wynn of Mirage Resorts, Don Snyder of Boyd Gaming and Mark Dodson of Park Place Entertainment, among others.
But even on this sojourn Bush has been circumspect. "It's interesting to me that essentially he's doing it in a place where there is not much press access," notes Ralston. "He isn't going to be anywhere where anyone will be able to see him unless he's a big contributor."
The political ramifications of Bush's fundraiser are, of course, up in the air. Anti-gambling activist Grey says that in holding the fundraiser, Bush has given up on an issue he could have used against Gore. "Both parties have been equal opportunity pigs at the feeding trough" of gambling interests. "Bag men used to fly to Las Vegas and take bags of the skim back to the Mob in Detroit and Chicago; now we have [House Speaker Denny] Hastert, [Minority Leader Dick] Gephardt, and now Bush going to get the money and haul it back to Washington, D.C.
"I'm not as concerned about the hypocrisy as I am about the lack of ability to see that here was an issue he could have boxed Gore on," Grey continues. "I fault him for his judgment."
Many experts and pollsters disagree with Grey, however, arguing that, at best, Americans express ambivalence about the issue. A Gallup poll from this month indicated that 60 percent of Americans have played the lottery at least once in the last decade or so. A year ago, a Gallup survey indicated that almost two-thirds of American adults approve of legal gambling, around 75 percent said they approve of state lotteries and 67 percent believe that opening a casino helps a community's economy. But 55 percent of American surveyed said that legalized gambling "is creating a compulsive gambling problem in this country," and 68 percent said they believe that betting on sporting events leads to cheating and fixing games.
Democrats, of course, hope to use the gambling anecdote as yet another example of Bush's chameleon-like proclivities, speaking to a larger issue they hope will work against Bush with swing voters.
"He says he has these strong principles against gambling, but then once the primaries are over, he drives the Bob Jones Redemption Tour Bus right up to the casinos," says Jennifer Backus, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee.
Focus on the Family's Reno says that it's too early to assess what impact Bush's casino payoffs will have this November. "America in general is waking up to the realities of gambling [as a reaction] to seeing the hurt and devastation firsthand," he says. "Voters are just beginning to look at politicians who are beholden to this destructive industry and make judgments accordingly."
Last year Eunie Smith, president of the Eagle Forum of Alabama and wife of former Rep. Albert Lee Smith, R-Ala., worked on a statewide referendum that defeated prospects for a lottery in Alabama. "That was a strong indication that people are recognizing the problems that gambling is causing," says Smith, who helped lead the charge against the lottery. "Eagle Forum in Alabama worked with a coalition of pro-family organizations against gambling. And the coalition early on brought up the question of whether we would take any money from any gambling interest and we all agreed -- without any qualification whatsoever -- that it would be hypocritical to take it. Even for what we might consider to be a good end of stopping the lottery."
News of Bush's Lake Tahoe event is "a real shame," says Smith, "and will offend a lot of his natural base of voters. If people who are particularly concerned about gambling realize that Bush took money and Pat [Buchanan] didn't and says he won't," -- and he hasn't, and says he won't -- "it couldn't help but have an effect."
Bush's position doesn't make any sense, she says. "If you're against it, you're against it; you shouldn't try to benefit from something that you think is wrongful gain."
But Grey says that it's not too late for Bush. "As a minister, I feel that you can always return to the fold. He should give them the money back and do the right thing."