One-armed Bennett

It's not nice to celebrate the misfortunes of others, but William Bennett deserves it.

Bennett, federal drug czar during the Bush I administration, has been the self-appointed moral arbiter of the nation, author of "The Book of Virtue" and "The Death of Outrage." Last weekend, the Washington Monthly revealed that he is also a compulsive gambler, losing $340,000 at the slots in one day in Atlantic City last year and $500,000 in two days in Las Vegas last month.

We don't have a problem with gambling. Lay off our pot-smoking, and we won't care if you want to lay five units on the Jets minus-3 over Denver. Ain't nobody's business but your own. But Bennett is the man behind some of the harshest and most fanatical drug policies in US history, and such a self-righteous prig that we have to enjoy the sight of him getting sodomized by his own petard. There hasn't been a scandal this tasty since fundamentalist preacher Jimmy Swaggart got caught with a cheap hooker in a cheap motel outside New Orleans in 1988.

Bennett's drug policies are not ancient history. Current federal Drug Czar John Walters is his protégé, dubbed "Bennett's Mini-Me" by the Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann. Drug use is "morally wrong," they argue, because it constitutes defiance of lawful authority, and prohibition is a weapon of Nixonian cultural warfare.

That ideology is the basis for the Bush II regime's mass prosecutions of medical-marijuana users and glass-pipe manufacturers, their ads claiming that pot-smokers finance al-Qaeda. In their 1996 book "Body Count," Walters and Bennett expanded that worldview into a denunciation of the '60s counterculture, blaming its celebration of getting high and its "expansive notion of 'rights'" as the philosophical progenitor of the unhuman, remorseless teenage "superpredators" spawned by ghetto welfare mothers. Ironically, crack-trade violence peaked during Bush I's term, when Bennett was drug czar and Walters his aide.

"Body Count" largely ignored that fact. Instead, Bennett and Walters used the cheap debating trick of citing the worst hard-drug horror stories and applying them to marijuana as part of the scattergun category of "illegal drugs." While most people would agree that the worst drug problems are the junkie who steals anything they can snatch or scam, the crack gangs who hit four-year-olds with stray bullets while battling over housing-project turf, or the methamphetamine lab that threatens to blow up a trailer park, Bennett and Walters argue that the casual user is the problem, because "casual use is the vector by which drug use spreads."

In other words, drug users who haven't screwed up their lives should be punished, because nobody wants to be an emaciated, HIV-positive $5 crack whore whose kids are in foster care; but people can look at a pot-smoking lawyer or basketball player and think marijuana isn't so bad. Bennett and Walters acknowledged the argument that marijuana should be legal because relatively few pot-smokers develop serious drug problems, but dismissed it with the statement that there are relatively few casual users of heroin.

In his zeal to once again make the United States a moral nation, Bennett condemns a host of immoralities, from pot to promiscuity, homosexuality to hip-hop. In his view, Bill Clinton lying about an extramarital blowjob was a far viler abomination than Richard Nixon lying about bugging his opponents or Ronald Reagan lying about funding terrorists in Central America. But oddly, he doesn't include gambling. He denounces the '60s counterculture for promoting instant gratification instead of hard work, self-denial, and thrift, but what could be more instant gratification than pulling a slot machine or playing video poker?

Bennett claims that he more or less broke even -- which sounds like denial -- and that he wasn't blowing the "milk money." But the sums he was blowing show contempt for the working people of America. He lost more money in one day than most people can spend on a house. The $500 chips that he tossed into slot machines and lost a few seconds later represent almost three weeks take-home pay for a woman de-boning catfish in Mississippi, four or five 12-hour shifts behind the wheel for a New York taxi driver, a week's worth of class time and preparing lesson plans for a teacher. (As Secretary of Education under Reagan, Bennett sneered that teachers who were union members cared more about making money than they did about educating children.)

"I view it as drinking," Bennett told the Washington Monthly when asked about his gambling. "If you can't handle it, don't do it."

That sounds exactly like the libertarian argument for legalizing drugs. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

Steven Wishnia is news editor at High Times and author of "Exit 25 Utopia" (The Imaginary Press).

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