Sign Up

Bill Bennett’s Dry Tears

How do William Bennett's pronouncements on morality sound now that his gambling problem has come to light?

May 14, 2003

How do William Bennett's pronouncements on morality sound now that his gambling problem has come to light?

And so, it is difficult to suppress the sinful feeling of "Schadenfreude" when yet another moral giant stumbles over his own inadequacies.

For years, we have been inundated with the writings and public speeches of William Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education and drug-czar.

Mr. Bennett tried a different angle to preaching piety, by attaching an element of secularism to his Christian values.

Of course, Mr. Bennett really thrived on the personal failings of former President Bill Clinton. With the rigid fervor that is the hallmark of self-proclaimed saviors, he could not help but teach the American public about the lessons of such immorality.

And then the world learns that Mr. Bennett has a small problem of his own. He turns out to be a high-rolling gambler, who is alleged to have spent millions on his passion.

Mind you, in spite of the often ruinous financial legacy addicted gamblers leave for themselves and their families, Mr. Bennett wisely had not identified gambling as a "sin" in his past writings. In fact, it had long been known that he took pleasure in this activity (most moralists look disapprovingly at any human pleasure).

We did not know, nor did many of us care, about the extent to which Mr. Bennett exercised his irrefutable right to pleasure. Some of us do care, however, when those who scold us for our " digressions," fail to meet those standards of purity.

No doubt (in his mind), Mr. Bennett is in a different league than those who have failed to pull themselves out of the gutter in spite of his inspirational guidance. In previous interviews, Mr. Bennett had admitted that gambling relaxes him. If only he could have heard himself speak the exact same words of those who are addicted to drugs — or alcohol.

He is also quoted to have said that gambling was much like alcohol, only to be enjoyed by those who can "handle it" (actually a code word for the ultra-rich). If only he could recognize how much this sounds like the ever-green excuse of all addicts: "I could stop anytime."

But Mr. Bennett feels fine — essentially because he had enough money to be able to afford his addiction. He did not drive his family into bankruptcy — and he has assured us that he complied with the law.

And yet, "law" and "values" were not one and the same (according to the moralists). Values are much loftier a goal. Often, so the moral goes, they are not created by men, but by God.

Am I off the mark if I recall at this point the indignation of the moral minority over President Clinton's legalistic approach to life — and his ability to compartmentalize?

Naturally, it is unfair to kick a man when he is down. Mr. Bennett may continue in self-denial. I guess it is time for family intervention. Spending millions of dollars in casinos is compulsive — and just as much a quick fix as heroin.

There is an obvious void in Mr. Bennett's life, and it is painful. His fixation on moral values has evidently been a shield protecting him from addressing this pain and from allowing others to help and understand him.

Unlike Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart or a slew of underperforming Japanese CEOs, Mr. Bennett did not have the stomach for a weeping TV appearance to acknowledge his shortcomings.

Instead, he followed the "executive high road" by issuing an underwhelming press release — and sending out his wife to answer questions. Grudgingly, Mr. Bennett has now promised that his gambling days are over. Oh, how familiar this sounds.

More on this topic