Jewish World Review May 9, 2003 / 7 Iyar, 5763
Debra J. Saunders
Holier than Bennett
THE SELF-APPOINTED hypocrisy police made a big
bust last week, when the Washington Monthly and
Newsweek both reported that Bill Bennett, former U.
S. secretary of education, drug czar and author of
"The Book of Virtues," has been a big-stakes
gambler at U.S. casinos.
It's difficult to understand the authors' apparent horror
at Bennett's high- stakes hobby. Bennett has a
personal problem, it seems, but where's the news?
"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," Washington Monthly
authors Joshua Green and Jonathan Alter huffed in
their expose. Other critics have gone further, as
they've pronounced that Bennett's bad habit has
undermined any claim he makes of being a supporter
of traditional morality.
You see, in the world of journalism, something isn't
bad because of its effect or consequences. An
activity is wrong only if it signals a journalist's idea of
-- shudder -- hypocrisy.
As the late columnist Meg Greenfield once noted, "If
a politician murders his mother, the first response of
the press or of his opponents will likely be not that it
was a terrible thing to do, but rather that in a
statement made six years before he had gone on
record as being opposed to matricide." She
understood the banal J-school logic that finds a
murder to be worse if the killer once condemned
I should mention that it's not clear that Bennett is a
hypocrite on gambling. After all, "The Book of
Virtues" is a treasury of "great moral stories."
Bennett never wrote a book or launched a crusade
against gambling in America. His group, Empower
America, has no position on gambling, according to
spokesman Jeff Kwitowski. In 1996, Bennett told
Time Magazine, "I'm against state expansion of
gambling, state advertising encouraging people to
gamble and gambling as a way to make a living. But
adults on their own time . . .,"
So, with an absence of any clear contradiction in
Bennett's public and private take on gambling per se,
critics are reduced to arguing that since Bennett
styles himself as a proponent of virtue, he must meet
the standards of all virtues, even those he has not
espoused. That is, Bennett has to meet standards
that people who don't like virtue-crats set for
It's so convenient. Under the anti-Bennett criteria,
conservatives' personal lives are open to scrutiny,
while liberals' private lives are nobody's business.
Somehow, there was no hypocrisy in Bill Clinton's
womanizing, when he posed as a committed spouse.
There's no hypocrisy in journalists opposing the
Patriot Act because it infringes on an individual's right
to privacy while they expose the private pastime of
individuals of a different mind.
But I digress. What I really don't understand is why
Bennett's critics are enraged at what they consider
hypocrisy. If it's wrong to extol virtue, it should be
wrong to condemn a vice like hypocrisy.
Yet, there was the smug, disdainful and intolerant
Slate columnist Michael Kinsley bashing Bennett for
being a hypocrite, as well as "smug, disdainful,
intolerant" in his support of virtue.
In fact, the Bennett story reveals an active jihad
against moral standards in America. If Bennett never
extolled a virtue, if he never commended honesty or
fidelity, if he didn't try to live up to ideals concerning
hard work and self-discipline, his privacy would be
sacrosanct. Since he believes in something,
however, he's a target.
There's no voice that sounds more "holier-than-thou"
than that of a critic complaining that someone thinks
of himself as "holier-than-thou."
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