Two Windbags Deflated

This week, The Economist warns of Attorney-General John Ashcroft‚s power grabs; and Bill Bennett, former Drug Czar and moral crusader, is exposed as a gambling addict, losing $8 million in the past ten years.

May 3 -- The Economist editorializes: Conservatives Beware - -- An Out-Of-Control Attorney-General Is Trampling On Your Principles.

So far, the debate about John Ashcroft has focused mainly on the war against terrorism. Libertarians moan that the hyperactive attorney-general has hugely expanded the government's power to monitor citizens (by wiretapping their telephones and so on); that he has made it much easier to detain and deport immigrants and foreign visitors, particularly Arabs; and that he has ruthlessly accumulated power over the country's sprawling judicial system in his own hands.

Conservatives wearily retort that wars force everybody to rethink the balance between freedom and security. Surely the Attorney General is duty-bound to err on the side of vigilance to thwart another September 11th. Well, yes.

But what if you examine Mr Ashcroft's record in other areas, such as medical marijuana, assisted suicide and the death penalty? You find precisely the same pattern of Johnknows-best centralisation.

The country's terror-fighter has also become the country's self-appointed moraliser-in-chief. And he is trampling all over two conservative principles he used to espouse: limited government and localism.

Begin with an idea precious to most Republicans: states' rights. Mr Ashcroft has prosecuted "medical marijuana" users in California despite a state initiative legalising the practice.

Mr Ashcroft's conversion into a centraliser is both hypocritical and short-sighted. It is hypocritical because Mr Ashcroft was once a leading critic of big government. As attorney-general and then senator for Missouri, he resisted a federal injunction to desegregate St Louis's schools so vigorously that the Southern Partisan, a neo-Confederate magazine, singled him out for praise.

It is short-sighted because, as an evangelical who refrains from smoking, drinking, dancing and looking at nude statues, Mr Ashcroft represents a minority in his own party, let alone the country.

He has no chance of winning the culture wars: the forces arrayed against him, from the media to the universities, are too vast. The best he can hope for is a live-and-let-live attitude that gives minority views like his own room to flourish. Mr Ashcroft will come to rue his Faustian bargain with the federal government the next time a Democrat sits in his office.

May 7 -- The Sydney Morning Herald reports: When a famous figure in America finds him or herself involved in a personal scandal, few commentators make it to the microphone faster than William Bennett, the country's leading public moralist.

Previously an education secretary and drug tsar under Republican presidents, Mr Bennett -- now head of a conservative think tank -- has inveighed for years against everything from drunkenness to promiscuity, the moral failings of Bill Clinton, the moral failings of liberals, and the permissiveness of contemporary culture.

His consistently bestselling books bear titles such as The Book of Virtues, The Death of Outrage, Our Sacred Honour, The Children's Treasury of Virtues, and Moral Compass: Stories For a Life's Journey.

Now there is a fresh outbreak of vice for him to campaign against: the epidemic of Schadenfreude that has greeted the revelation that he is an inveterate gambler who has lost millions of dollars in casinos in the past 10 years, playing poker machines into the small hours.

Documents obtained by the magazines Newsweek and Washington Monthly show that he is a regular at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, is a "preferred customer" at several of them, and has lost more than $US8million ( $12.5million ) in the process.

Mr Bennett maintained that his forceful condemnation of the sins of society was not incompatible with his gambling.

"It's never been a moral issue with me," he said."I liked church bingo growing up. I've been a poker player . I view it as drinking. If you can't handle it, don't do it."

There is, indeed, no record of him speaking out against gambling. But that, the commentator Michael Kinsley argued in Slate magazine, "doesn't show that Bennett is not a hypocrite".

"It just shows that he's not a complete idiot. Working his way down the list of other people's pleasures, weaknesses, and uses of American freedom, he just happened to skip over his own. How convenient."

Send tips and comments to Kevin Nelson.

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