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In Defense of HYPOCRISYPicking Sides in the War on Virtue
By JEREMY LOTT
NELSON CURRENTCopyright © 2007 Jeremy Lott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBILL BENNETT'S RAP SHEET
Sounds to me like you're an opportunistic hypocritical little pudnocker. COLONEL FLAGG
I was tipped off by an excited Washington Monthly hand that his low-circulation magazine was about to break a major story, jointly, with Newsweek. It was the spring of 2003. The subject of the exposé was former education secretary, drug czar, and New York Times best-selling author William J. Bennett.
The scoop was this: the author of The Book of Virtues had bet millions of dollars in book royalties and speaking fees at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. His preferred games of chance were video poker and high-stakes slot machines. Bennett was such a high roller that most casinos would send a limo, put him up for a few nights on the house, and turn him loose in the high-limit rooms.
By most accounts, the casinos got a good return on their investment. Bennett would hope for digital straight flushes or wrestle with one-armed bandits into the wee hours of the morning, at a cost of $100 to $500 a pull. Several casinos extended lines of credit in excess of $200,000, and those often failed to contain the damage. Internal documents reveal that, in one two-month period, Bennett was forced to wire more than $1.4 million to cover his losses.
When he was informed that the magazines were taking the story public, Bennett agreed to talk with Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. He claimed his luck was not nearly so bad as the Dorian Gray-like portrait that a nongambler might sketch after peeking at casino documents. Bennett elaborated, "You can roll up and down a lot in one day, as we have on many occasions. You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening and net out only a few thousand." In fact, he puffed up his chest and claimed that over the last decade he'd "come out fairly close to even."
That "fairly close to even" line was soon to be much mocked in the press, but Bennett soldiered on. He worked the high-limit rooms and preferred automated games of chance because he found the alternative annoying. "When I go to the tables," he explained, "people talk-and they want to talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax." Message: who could begrudge the guy a little relaxation?
Bennett argued that his behavior was not wrong for three reasons. One, he could afford it. He didn't "play the milk money," as he put it. He obeyed the laws, paid his taxes, reported any winnings, and flossed twice a day. Two, he didn't lie about it, except in a genial, size-of-that-fish sort of way. The Washington Times had reported on his gambling in two separate stories, one about a jackpot that he'd hit while playing slots at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Three, gambling is not a sin, so long as it does not harm others.
"I've gambled all my life and it's never been a moral issue with me. I liked church bingo when I was growing up. I've been a poker player," Bennett told Newsweek. When it was put to him that gambling is a pathological addiction for some people, he denied being a problem gambler. Bennett fit gaming into the same moral category as alcohol: "If you can't handle it, don't do it."
As damage control strategies go, Bennett's approach was sound and, for all we know, heartfelt. He came across as a regular guy who wanted to unwind for a few hours, avoid tedious arguments about politics, and maybe nurse a bourbon on the rocks while he put a bit of his own money on the line.
At the same time, the magazine writers were coming off as scolds and worse. They had relied on leaked documents from casinos to take a shot at a man because of his political beliefs. The Washington Monthly framed the story as payback: Bennett had criticized President Clinton during the impeachment fracas of the late '90s-in fact, he even "gambled throughout Clinton's impeachment"-so he was now fair game. He had spoken out against gay marriage, abortion, and crack cocaine so it made good sense to expose his private casino receipts to the light of day.
What's more, the journalists didn't have the goods, and they knew it. Joshua Green, principal author of the Monthly story, closed it out with this feather of a punch: "By furtively indulging in a costly vice that destroys millions of lives and families across the nation, Bennett has profoundly undermined the credibility of his word on this moral issue." My loose translation: Bill Bennett is not as outraged as we are about gambling. He even plays the slots himself. How dare he.
So they tried to bait Bennett into responding. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker closed his editor's note for the issue by opining, "It appears ... the conservative former Education secretary who makes a living writing about 'virtue'"-note the scare quotes-"has a little vice." He called the story a reminder that moralists "always seem to have an easier time lecturing others about behavior than controlling their own."
Green assured readers of the Las Vegas Business Press that other high rollers could relax because this was a onetime thing. Their target had been a "national scold" who "threw stones while he was living in a glass house." It was the journalists' job to expose the former drug czar, but there the scorched-roulette campaign would end. As long as gamblers stayed at the tables and didn't hold forth on moral issues on CNN, they had little to fear from the muckrakers.
That was an astounding concession. Green was endorsing the omertà-like code of the numbers industry, with one important modification. He was saying that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, unless it happens to Bill Bennett.
"I'M NOT A HYPOCRITE"
Once the story broke, talking heads couldn't stop talking about Bennett's alleged hypocrisy. Bennett maintained that his gambling did not fall under the modern use of the term. For him, games of chance were never a "moral issue," and he had never spoken out against gambling qua gambling. He told interviewer Tim Russert that he hadn't taken to his soapbox on this subject and so any contradictions were put there by his detractors. "I'm not a hypocrite," Bennett said, over a month after the story broke.
His critics were not persuaded and probably not persuadable. Writing in the online magazine Slate, Michael Kinsley tore into the noncontradiction defense. That he had never condemned gambling, Kinsley wrote, "doesn't show that Bennett is not a hypocrite. It just shows that he's not a complete idiot." Then Kinsley decided to channel the spirit of the great Dana Carvey Saturday Night Live character Church Lady: "Working his way down the list of other people's pleasures, weaknesses, and uses of American freedom, [Bennett] just happened to skip over his own. How convenient."
As went Kinsley, so went the tidal wave of respectable opinion. Because of the left-right format of most political television chat shows, many conservatives who are not gung-ho about gambling found themselves having to defend a high roller against charges of hypocrisy. This mismatch produced some comical results. On Crossfire, former Clinton administration flack Paul Begala used the Gospel of Matthew (or as he put it "the book of St. Matthews") to Bible-thump an evangelical Christian rival over Bennett's supposed moral laxity.
In the weekly opinion magazine The Nation, Katha Pollitt expressed a fairly common liberal complaint about l'affaire Bennett. She wished it "had been sex, maybe some of that hot 'man on dog' action that Senator Rick Santorum is so keen on chatting about." However, she decided that since the target of the exposé had been Bennett, the "thundering sultan of sanctimony" himself, high stakes gambling would "do quite nicely."
Thus did the end (getting that bastard Bill Bennett) more than justify the means (digging through private casino records and publishing the results) that might otherwise have troubled sensitive progressive souls. But the same people who are normally fierce advocates of privacy and civil liberties were too busy piling on to notice. Here was a chance to kick a former drug czar when he was down, to censor a critic of rap music, yo. That sort of opportunity doesn't come along every day. As an added bonus, they could call Bennett a sucker, a loser, a whale.
The condemnations grew so loud and numerous that Bennett's old colleague and supporter William F. Buckley, Jr. weighed in with "discouraging commentary." Buckley wrote in his nationally syndicated column that Bennett "is through." His role in public life would be nil. No Republican administration would hire him. Book sales would dry up. The future he had to look forward to did not include playing the slots because he would need that money to buy milk for the wife and kids.
The "he's through" view was a decent reflection of the evolving thought of America's pundits and journalists. Many critics either predicted or openly wished that his gambling losses would also cost Bennett the position he had carved out for himself as Mr. Morality, or, to use Buckley's more marbled phrase, as "the nation's premier secular catechist of virtue."
Predictions of Bennett's demise rested on three questionable assumptions that fall over like dominos on closer inspection. The first was that Bennett was, in fact, a hypocrite. The second, that his hypocrisy would matter, that it would rob his words of any authority. The third assumption: Bennett's audience would view the matter of his outing as a one-sided affair, with Bennett wearing the hypocritical horns and the chattering class sporting the halos. In fact, as I have already hinted, the whole episode was shot through with hypocrisy. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
DEFINING THE MILK MONEY DOWN
That so many people were quick to label Bennett a hypocrite is a bit of a puzzlement. The American Heritage Dictionary is a pretty good bellwether of modern English usage. According to the most recent edition, hypocrisy is "the professing of beliefs or virtues one does not possess." Bennett never believed, and certainly never professed to believe, that gambling is wrong. He never spoke out against it or tried especially hard to hide the fact that he gambled. Therefore, Bill Bennett is not a hypocrite. Case dismissed.
Not so fast, said many of his old sparring partners. Beliefs are one thing, virtues another. Virtues are eternal and woven together like a sweater. Yank out one thread and you ruin the whole thing. As Michael Kinsley put the question, "Is there some reason why [Bennett's] general intolerance of the standard vices does not apply to this one? None that he's ever mentioned."
Actually, there was one really big reason, one that Bennett had mentioned repeatedly. Maybe Kinsley was too busy blasting away to comprehend it. Kinsley accused him of "spraying smarm" for divulging that he had started gambling with church bingo, but Bennett wasn't just blowing hot saliva-flecked air. He was offering an explanation. Bennett is Catholic, and his understanding of right and wrong is informed and bounded by his religious tradition.
Bennett's religion is relevant because Catholicism envisions a more muscular role for a secular authority than, say, conservative strains of Protestantism, and it places a premium on being a law-abiding citizen. Case in point: the confessional gets mighty uncomfortable as every April fifteenth approaches and a number of priests decide to ask if you have cheated on your taxes. (Best answer: "Well, father, you'll have to talk to my Jewish accountant.")
Within the boundaries of what is legal, however, Bennett's church (and mine) tends to be fairly lenient with the thou-shalt-nots. The use of marijuana and cocaine is a no-no, but alcohol and tobacco are permitted and then some. In cities with large ethnic Catholic populations, it isn't uncommon to go to a pub and find a priest, in his jacket and collar, belly up to the bar, pounding back the pints and lighting up coffin nails.
Granted, there are limits. All good Catholics are supposed to stop short of serious drunkenness, and they are encouraged to give such things up for the Lenten season leading up to Easter and certain holy days. But the rule, which runs counter to most stereotypes of the Catholic Church, is moderation and toleration rather than prohibition and repression.
So it is with gaming. According to the Catechism, gambling is A-OK as long as the gamblers don't play the grocery money. "Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers," you see, "are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others." The theologians do warn that the "passion" for gambling can become dangerous, but they reserve their heavy fire for the cheats and sharks: "Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter."
Rome may be wrong about matters grave and small, but the vision that Bennett had put forward, and the standard against which it would have been appropriate to judge him, was a lay Catholic's vision of the good life. Bennett's ideal man worked hard, paid his taxes, raised a family, went to church, gave to charity, involved himself in the community, and unwound in ways that enjoy the sanction of law and are within his means. And Bennett's means were considerable enough that $500 a pull did not place him outside this model.
Here's the point: Bennett was not gerrymandering a list of vices to exclude things that he enjoys. He was enjoying activities that church and society had taught him to regard as perfectly acceptable. The thing that was selective here was not Bennett's notion of hypocrisy but his opponents' preconceived notions of virtue. They viewed him as the no-fun guy, so evidence of fun was proof positive of his hypocrisy.
Now, you don't have to be a fan of Bennett to question whether his opponents were being remotely fair, or remotely reasonable. And you need not endorse, say, his views on abortion or drugs or rap music to wonder at this point if this whole hypocrisy thing has gotten a bit out of hand.
SHUT UP, THEY EXPLAINED
I have focused on the case of Bill Bennett so far because it's what golfers call a sure shot: a short putt from the green with no slope, no wind, next to no chance of missing. A gimme. Here was a man whose gambling losses were exposed largely because his political opponents wanted payback. Then, rather than argue with him, critics went to town on a straw man that was shaped vaguely like Bennett. He was a hypocrite because, well, because they wished it so. And this counterfeited hypocrisy was introduced as evidence that no one should take him seriously anymore. A columnist for the Orlando Sentinel complained, "If you're peddling virtue ... you can't very well indulge in a vice."
Read that last sentence again. It demonstrates perfectly a point of view that some wag might call the "saint or shut up" approach to hypocrisy. That is, if you are the Pope, Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, Mister Rogers, or the Dalai Lama, you can talk. We will listen, though often grudgingly, to what you have to say on moral matters. Otherwise, we don't want to hear it. Take it to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. Maybe the recovering poker fiends will care.
A few brave skeptics have raised objections to the "saint or shut up" formula. The most convincing criticism comes from human nature itself. People who exhibit one or more vices-in religious language, sinners-make up the bulk of the world's population. Yet experience tells us that those people who have vices usually also model better qualities, or virtues. If a man's behavior is usually but not always admirable, does that disqualify him from speaking on moral issues? Should a single sin be enough to expel the would-be virtue peddler from the garden of polite opinion?
Ten years ago, political essayist Ramesh Ponnuru took up these questions for an article that ran in the Washington, D.C.I based conservative magazine The Weekly Standard under the catchy headline "In Defense of Hypocrisy." The backdrop for the essay was the outing of a political consultant as a prostitute-hiring toe sucker, but the analysis doesn't seem to have aged a nanosecond. In many ways, Ponnuru's words seem more relevant now in our post-9/11, post-Enron, post-Katrina world.
Excerpted from In Defense of HYPOCRISY by JEREMY LOTT Copyright © 2007 by Jeremy Lott. Excerpted by permission.
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