Joe Conason's Journal

Bill Bennett's wife says he'll never go to Las Vegas again. Can she make the hypocrite stop preaching about morality, too?

Published May 5, 2003 7:03PM (EDT)

The debt of outrage
Thumbing through William Bennett's marvelous "Book of Virtues," a young reader in search of wisdom may notice that the very first chapter is titled "Self-Discipline." It is now abundantly clear that the author -- whose unbridled self-indulgence at the gaming tables became the big story of the weekend -- sorely lacks that particular quality. He is now discovering again, as he wrote in his high-minded introduction, that "much unhappiness and personal distress in the world" is caused by "failures to control tempers, appetites, passions, and impulses."

The first chapter of "Virtues" features an excerpt from the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle advises men such as Bennett to "take notice of the errors into which we naturally tend to fall. They vary in each individual's case, and we will discover ours by the pleasure or pain they give us ... But in all cases we should guard against what is pleasant, and pleasure itself, because we are not impartial judges of it ..." As the original virtuecrat, Aristotle would no doubt have been quite appalled by a celebrated sage who drops $8 million in Vegas and Atlantic City while accepting lavish favors from the gambling houses.

But Molière, the scourge of hypocrites who is quoted nowhere by Bennett, would have been unsurprised. If he were still among us, the urbane Parisian could have transformed the dismal tale of Empower America and its pompous impresario into an instructive comedy. Unfortunately, despite all the marvelous material at hand, nobody so talented is likely to write a play based on the life and times of Bill Bennett. Imagine the scenes in which he lambastes gays, pot smokers, libertines, rappers, purveyors of erotica, and all the other deviant elements responsible for the nation's social decay. Then he sneaks off to a gambling den, where he furtively pulls the $500 slots until dawn while chain-smoking, guzzling martinis and gorging on junk food. Instead of such bracing satire, we will have to be satisfied with earnest debates on cable television and the Op-Ed pages.

For a man who earns millions fretting about the harmful example set for our youth by marijuana users and homosexual couples, Bennett seems quite unconcerned over the public perception of his own habit by the millions of Americans whose families are ruined by compulsive gambling. He can "handle it," or so he claims. Too bad for those other chumps if they can't. He insists that he wins as much as he loses, an excuse that provokes loud laughter among those knowledgeable about the gaming industry. (Perhaps he should reread the chapter on honesty in "Virtues.")

The defense of Bennett by indignant conservatives revives memories of Clinton's late mother, Virginia Kelley, whose passion for the ponies at the Hot Springs racetrack provoked much snooty commentary before her death in 1995. "She danced, drank, flirted and gambled," as the abstemious R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. noted in a book about the former president. Sinner though she may have been, we can say this much about the kindly Mrs. Kelley: She never presumed to give moral instruction to the rest of us, or fleeced the suckers with $50,000 harangues about America's deficient character. Bennett's wife has reportedly vowed that "he's never going again" to the fleshpots of Nevada and New Jersey. Forget Molière. Now that his wife has picked up the rolling pin, Bennett is beginning to remind me of W.C. Fields.
[12:06 p.m. PDT, May 5, 2003]

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