William Bennett's Selective Devotion to Virtue

About once a year I love losing fifty bucks at a casino. I'm not a masochist and would prefer to win money, of course. In fact, every time I walk into Harrah's at Cherokee, NC or the Grand Casino at Biloxi, I expect to miraculously exit with several thousand dollars stuffed in my pockets. I fantasize about paid-off credit cards and eating at good restaurants for a week. I get high off the adrenaline rush. However, I am a realist and walk away from those blackjack machines once fifty dollars is gone.

I would never fool myself into thinking that gambling is a good thing in general. Consider this mind-boggling fact: more money is spent in the U.S. on gambling every year than the combined revenues of all recorded music, theme parks, movie tickets, video games and spectator sports. Gambling is the great American pastime, and its profits benefit a smallish group of corporate interests, organized criminals, some Native American reservations and a few state education funds.

William Bennett, former drug czar and professional virtuous guy, has been outed by Newsweek and the Washington Monthly as a casino regular. The author of eleven books on morality lost a half million dollars within two days last month at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He wired $1.4 million to cover his losses in a single two month period. He is reported to prefer $500 per pull slot machines and has a credit line of $200,000 at four casinos where he is a regular. He claims that he has broken "just about even" during his decades of gambling, but casino workers who watch him play have laughed at his claim.

"I've gambled all my life and it's never been a moral issue with me," Bill Bennett informed the public recently.

Gee, Bill, some people have smoked pot all their lives and it's never been a moral issue. Some folks hate war and are convinced their feet are planted on firmly moral ground. Yet Bennett has used such examples as evidence of America's "erosion of moral clarity." Why is his high-rolling butt more virtuous than mine?

William Bennett has made a sizable fortune with his various books on virtue. An outspoken critic of "moral relativism," he insists on a clear view of moral behavior based on conservative Christian Republican values. Bennett's take on morality includes condemnation of homosexual behavior, Jesse Jackson, gangsta rap, Jerry Springer, marijuana, affirmative action, and war protesters. The good stuff includes George W., Israel, school vouchers, faith-based initiatives, Rush Limbaugh ("a symbol of encouragement") and the pledge of allegiance. He refuses criticism of the cigarette industry, alcohol, and now gambling.

You can't escape from Bennett's virtue industry these days. His works are wildly popular, particularly among fundamentalists. His book on the morality of our war on terrorism has dominated bookstores recently, and every college graduate seems to receive a copy of his "Book of Virtues." Even Chick-fil-a gave out virtue booklets to children, so that morality could be served up with boneless chicken products ... okay, I'm no saint. Although I have read numerous PETA tracts on the evils of the poultry industry and have viewed their slideshow on institutionalized chicken torture, I still eat chicken. I'm one of Bennett's awful moral relativists, but at least I don't deny it.

"I view (gambling) as drinking. If you can't handle it, don't do it." As the drug czar under George Bush I, William Bennett could not preach loudly enough about the danger of inhaled tar found in marijuana cigarettes. Yet, he seems oddly subdued about the problems associated with gambling. His longstanding argument that drug use causes homelessness, crime, emotional and physical abuse, suicide, and financial ruin is equally applicable to legal gambling.

The poorest citizens spend the largest portion of their disposable income on gambling. Any of us who pump gasoline at local convenience store here in Georgia on a Friday afternoon are well aware of this as the lottery lines form. I am thankful for the Hope scholarship, but the reality is that my children's future education may be funded by blue-collar gambling addicts whose families need their money now. Not only does gambling cause bankruptcy, suicide and criminal activity, the loss of revenue toward other pursuits actually creates a measurable decline in other small businesses where casino activity is established.

Personally, I can't advocate the end of legalized gambling because prohibition never stops anything. Enforced morality scares the shit out of me, and we might as well get some tax revenue out of our vices. I'll never boycott the industry -- I guess, like William Bennett, it's "okay" for me to waste a little money at the slots.

Obviously embarrassed by the recent publicity, Bennett claims to be reforming. He announced just after the news broke of his extensive gambling habits that he would cease all casino activity. Is this for real? Maybe Bennett's moral compass is pointing toward the solid profits from his book sales and future speaking engagements ($50,000 per speech). His gambling losses are estimated at eight million dollars over the last decade. His target audience is made up of conservative churchgoers, not the Cosa Nostra syndicate (an organized crime family whose major income comes from gambling). Giving up the slots would be the sensible thing to do.

Swearing off compulsive vices is easier said than done, however. Remember when Jimmy Swaggart repented publicly for his dalliances with New Orleans hookers in order to save his evangelical empire? He tried, but kept backsliding right onto those unwashed cheap motel bedspreads. I suspect that gambling is a tough addiction, otherwise Gamblers Anonymous wouldn't have multiple meetings in all fifty states and 36 countries.

Gamblers Anonymous recommends that the gambling addict admit that he is 1) unwilling to accept reality; 2) an emotionally insecure individual; 3) basically immature and manifesting this by his desire to be a "big shot." Sounds a lot like a guy who runs around telling everyone that the moral compass in his pocket is a lot bigger than theirs.

Good luck with your recovery, Bill.

Debra McCorkle is a shopowner who splits her time between North Carolina and Georgia.

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