Mr. Virtue craps out

If William Bennett wants to gamble, fine. But he and his fellow clay-footed morality scolds should let the rest of us enjoy our harmless vices.

Published May 9, 2003 7:10PM (EDT)

Bill Bennett's a big man. He acknowledged this week that his outsize gambling habit didn't jibe with his preaching about morality, so he decided to give up gambling.

He gave up the wrong vice.

At least the high-rolling Man of Virtue had the integrity to admit there's a contradiction between his shrill moral proselytizing and his weakness for casinos, after Newsweek and Washington Monthly revealed that Bennett lost $8 million at slot machines and video poker over a decade (a habit he tried at first to defend by telling reporters "I don't bet the milk money"). It's been fascinating, by contrast, to watch his Republican friends try to deny the conflict. "I'm sure he doesn't regard gambling as a virtue but rather as a rather minor and pardonable vice and a legal one and one that has not damaged him or anyone else," William Kristol rambled in the New York Times.

Kristol had better watch out: In the World According to Bill Bennett, the moral universe he's made a fortune flacking, there's almost no such thing as a "minor and pardonable vice" -- and if there is, the standard isn't whether it's "damaged him or anyone else." That's exactly the kind of moral relativism -- used in defense of recreational pot smoking, for example -- that Bennett says has ruined America, and if Kristol continues that sort of reasoning he won't receive his inscribed copy of "The Book of Virtues II."

Republicans have rushed to defend Bennett at least in part because liberals, they say, are out to get him. "The left is going to use Bennett's gambling to try to drive him out of public life," Jonathan V. Last wailed in the Weekly Standard. Jon, you've got us confused with your team -- it was Bill O'Reilly who said Salon's Gary Kamiya "had no place in the public arena" because of his views about President Bush and the war. Bennett can stay in public life as far as I'm concerned, but he should wear a big hypocrite sign whenever he wants to declaim about other people's morals. And so should most of his friends in the morality-cop wing of the Republican Party.

Last is right about one thing: Liberals have enjoyed Bennett's moment of shame. It's true -- from stories about cross-dressing closet-case J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy's gay bully boy Roy Cohn, through the exposure of right-wing adulterers like Henry Hyde, Bob Livingston, Dan Burton, Newt Gingrich and Helen Chenoweth during the Clinton impeachment crisis -- yes, we love this stuff. The recent conviction of Clinton hater Richard Delgaudio on child pornography charges was too gruesome to glory in, but we harbor petty fantasies, fantasies that are beneath us, really, about the day to come when the secret life of anti-gay Sen. Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum -- the man who believes we have no constitutional right to privacy, who thinks John F. Kennedy made a mistake separating his Catholicism from his politics, a man President Bush believes is "inclusive" -- is finally revealed.

I know, it's wrong to wish humiliation on Santorum. I don't, really; I pray he can live up to his ultra-Catholic code of conduct. But it's a fact that some of the folks most obsessed with legislating against our darker impulses turn out to be the most gripped by them. Even worse, though, are the ones who aren't gripped by moral obsession but go along for the ride anyway -- like the fornicating futurist Newt Gingrich, the Georgia sophisticate who called Clinton a "misogynist," and hitched his political career to the Christian Taliban out of opportunism, not conviction. (He obviously doesn't believe adultery and divorce, at least, are wrong -- he cheated on and dumped not one but two wives.)

Either way, whether they're driven by their own demons or by political calculations, the moral failings of these clay-feet Republicans is news, or should be, because they've set themselves up as the arbiters of a moral life, and their fatuous preaching has huge consequences for the country. Liberals are going to be all over these stories, and they ought to be -- and there will be plenty more of them, count on it -- until Republicans give up their disgraceful addiction to the politics of sanctimony and scapegoating that its electoral alliance with the Christian right requires.

Let's linger on Bill Bennett for a moment. Now it's true that Bennett, the sly devil, never inveighed against gambling. But his partners in Christian finger-pointing sure think his secret vice is immoral. Former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed called gambling "a cancer on the American body politic" that was "stealing food from the mouths of children." During the 2000 presidential campaign Republican candidate Gary Bauer denounced gambling because it "destroys marriages and families, discourages hard, honest work and increases crime," and he vowed to curb the spread of legal gambling. Bennett's own group Empower America also opposes the spread of legalized gambling. (How interesting that Bauer and Empower America only want to curb its spread, not ban it. Maybe they knew a Bill Bennett who couldn't legally gamble would be a cranky Bill Bennett indeed.)

Then there's Focus on the Family's James Dobson, a staunch gambling opponent who proclaimed in 1999 that "Gambling fever now threatens the work ethic and the very foundation of the family," whose group calls gambling "morally bankrupt from its very foundation." Dobson went so far as to attack his friend Gary Bauer, with whom he authored his alarmist book, "Children at Risk," for supporting John McCain when Bauer dropped out of the GOP race, at least in part because McCain took money from the "gambling industry." But Dobson and Bennett are buddies, too. Bennett wrote the introduction for "Children at Risk"; last August he and Dobson co-wrote an Op-Ed demanding that the "U.S. administration must take Israel's side."

You have to wonder about their relationship. Did Bennett ever have a late-night heart-to-heart with his pal the preacher? "Jim, maybe you oughta think twice about this gambling thing. It doesn't hurt anybody, as long as they don't bet the milk money."

That's Andrew Sullivan's fantasy. Bennett, he insists, "has done nothing hypocritical. Only in the minds of a few religious fanatics, has he done anything immoral." But Sullivan -- and this is what separates him from the total right-wing apparatchiks -- does pause to acknowledge that Bennett was one of the anti-Clinton extremists who "relentlessly" assaulted the president's character. "Some of the rhetoric went [too far] and Bennett clearly egged it on," Sullivan admits. He also notes that Bennett never bothered to contradict his Christian right friends when they fulminated about the evils of gambling. "I wish he'd turn his attention to some of the extremist moralizing among his allies on the far right. Sometimes it takes being a victim of their tirades to see where they're coming from."

But of course -- like Sullivan's wish that President Bush would denounce Rick Santorum for his nasty anti-gay remarks -- that didn't happen. Bennett's going to stay on Dobson's side of the culture war, not Sullivan's. In fact, my fantasy about Santorum's secret life one day being revealed is far more likely to come true than Sullivan's dreams of Bush and Bennett renouncing the politics of homophobia and theocracy. But comforting delusions die hard.

No, instead of sitting down with his old morality-cop buddies for a heart-to-heart about life's complexities and the impossibility of being perfect, Bennett gave up gambling. Another victory for James Dobson, who released this typically smug, sanctimonious statement: "We commend Dr. Bennett for acknowledging his problem and for stating emphatically, 'My gambling days are over.' Our prayers will be with him and his family in the days ahead."

I'm sorry to see Bennett cave to bullies like Dobson, but I wasn't surprised. Certainly I'd rather have him on the slot machines than at his word processor, churning out his windy, empty manifestos. I don't enjoy gambling myself, but I don't disapprove of it.

The fact is we all seek release, we all seek pleasure, we all seek escape. I don't begrudge Bennett his. What I begrudge is that he and his fellow morality cops -- -- still fighting the spirit of the '60s, 35 years later -- want to deny pleasure and escape to the rest of us. I think the Republicans' parsing of what Bennett did and didn't do, to show why he's not a hypocrite, is hilarious. Let's be honest: He's made a huge living out of being a scold. As Michael Kinsley noted first (and I like Kinsley best when he does high moral dudgeon on behalf of tolerance), Bennett believes "unrestricted personal liberty" is a problem for America, he wants us to "enter judgments on a whole range of behaviors and attitudes," not just what's illegal. So none of Bennett's personal flaws are off-limit for public scrutiny, and all the ways he fails to live up to his high Christian standards would seem to be fair game for comment.

Clearly gambling isn't his only sin. He's a big, beefy fellow; even his defender Jonah Goldberg of National Review acknowledges he might have a problem with gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. And though many conservative Christian sects forbid smoking, he had a bad nicotine habit back when he was drug czar (while he was preaching long jail terms for pot smokers), though by most accounts he eventually gave it up. In 2000 he ruled that secrets about politicians' marital infidelity were fair game for journalists and other candidates. "If adultery is part of your baggage, forget it," he warned prospective Republican candidates. Yet when it came to his gambling -- which, like adultery, is legal but forbidden by many Christian leaders -- he wanted a zone of privacy around his private life. His personal profile at one casino warned: "NO CONTACT AT RES OR BIZ!!!" I call that hypocrisy.

And personally, I think he's a liar, too. His low point, in my opinion, came in 1997, when he peddled the outrageous claim that the average life expectancy for gay men in America was 43. He wouldn't give it up even after critics poked holes in the way his source came up with it -- reading obituaries and news stories in gay papers and averaging the ages of those listed as dead. No reasonably intelligent person -- and Bennett's been called a lot of things, but dumb ain't one of them -- could believe a statistic cobbled together so lamely. So I call his continuing to use it lying. His defenders might call it something else, but I think anyone so prone to judgment about others ought to have Caesar's wife standards when it comes to the truth.

So by my accounting Bennett's been guilty of many moral failings over the years: gambling, overeating, smoking, purveying falsehoods, aiding and abetting America's outrageous and unjust vendetta against marijuana users, keeping an $8 million secret from his wife, Elayne. Clearly, Bill Bennett has parsed his way through the Bible, much the way the rest of us do, to keep himself on the good side of the ledger with the Lord.

Some of his defenders say the fact that he failed to live up to his own standards doesn't mean his standards are wrong, or that his crusade is now discredited. Jonah Goldberg quotes moral philosopher Max Scheler's maxim that "A sign pointing to Boston doesn't have to go there." Nice. But Bennett wasn't merely a signpost -- he's more like an armed commandant who stops you on the road to Philadelphia and forces you to Boston at gunpoint. Bennett didn't merely preach: He aligned himself with a movement that wants to punish those who reach different moral conclusions than it does -- jail them, bar them from public office, use the law to thwart them, at minimum hector and humiliate them. Over the years he's backed government action -- not merely moral instruction -- to ban gay marriage, make divorce harder, increase penalties for pot smoking, teach his own brand of "moral education" in public schools. So the fact that he hasn't been able to live within the narrow parameters set by his fellow bullies and scolds, limits they would impose on the rest of us, makes him a dangerous hypocrite, no matter what Bill Kristol or Jonah Goldberg say.

Just weeks after the Santorum flap, in which the GOP's No. 3 Senate leader got away not only with comparing homosexuality to incest and bestiality, but with criticizing the Supreme Court decision that made contraception legal and denying our right to privacy -- I find myself wondering again: What happened to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party? What happened to the Goldwaters, the freedom-loving heirs of Jefferson, the dauntless defenders of the rights of the individual against a coercive, moralizing state? Did all of them sell their souls to the Christian right when that seemed to be the party's only way back to national standing? A key problem is that during impeachment, many of them threw their lot in with the Bible-thumpers, the outrage peddlers, the morality police. They profited politically from their alliance with the soldiers of sanctimony, and they haven't been able to part company.

The incomparable R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. wrote a letter to Andrew Sullivan Wednesday, taking him to task for his mild rebuke of the impeachment brigade over its excesses. "The American Spectator's reportage on Boy Clinton in the 1990s is in no way comparable to the invasion of Bill Bennett's privacy by the Washington Monthly and Newsweek," he sputtered. "From our first Troopergate story ... I maintained that Clinton's fundamental offense was not sex, but the abuse of power." The truth is that the Spectator and other Clinton enemies paid troopers and grifters and liars and con men to sift through every detail of the president's private life, and they defended using what they found by any means necessary. Depending on the audience, Clinton's offense was sex, it was sex with an intern, it was adultery, it was lying, it was lying under oath, it was abuse of power. It was whatever was handy.

Reading an excerpt from Sidney Blumenthal's "The Clinton Wars," I found another great Bill Kristol quote, explaining why the burst of stories about Republican adulterers in 1998 -- Hyde, Burton, Chenoweth, Livingston -- would hurt Clinton, not the GOP. "Republicans have old-fashioned extramarital affairs with other adults. Those really are moral lapses that are private and more easily forgiven and very different from taking advantage of a young person who works for you when you're president." The echo with his defense of Bennett -- the rambling cadence, the casuistry, the shameless spinning, again invoking "privacy," when leading members of his party don't believe we have a right to it -- was almost eerie.

And I found myself having another fantasy -- no, not about the day Rick Santorum's clay feet crumble. It's a better, more worthy fantasy: that some day Kristol will wake up, read another one of his quotes explaining why Republican moral failings don't matter as much as Democrats' do, and decide he can't live with himself anymore. And he'll pull together other loyal GOP spinners who are smart enough to know better, and they'll all vow to stop it. They'll make common cause with the biggest voting bloc, by far, in politics: the millions of Americans who try to lead a good life, but can't always live up to their own moral standards, let alone those of the Christian Taliban. You know who I mean: the gays, the divorced, the single parents. Married people who like sex and think what they do in the bedroom should stay private. Smokers, drinkers, gamblers, people who watch pornography, recreational potheads. People who sometimes drive over the speed limit. Writers who think bad thoughts about scary, sanctimonious senators. All of us.

When that day comes, Republicans and Democrats will fight about tax cuts and rebuilding Iraq; privatizing Social Security and school vouchers. But we won't fight over who's got the corner on morality. We'll stop lobbing bricks at one another's glass houses. But until Republicans recover from their dependency on hectoring, divisive leaders like Dobson and Santorum and Bennett, until they give up their shaming and blaming and witch hunting and finger-pointing the way Bennett has promised to give up gambling, well, don't expect liberals to look away from Mr. Virtue's hypocrisy -- and the other inevitable, delectable stories like it -- anytime soon.

By Joan Walsh

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