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Jewish World Review May 7, 2003/ 5 Iyar, 5763

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Bennett's gamble on vice and virtue | William Bennett's "bad bet" -a.k.a. Clinton's Revenge -has the schadenfreuders in near glossolalia while posing an interesting problem for America's theocrats.

Revelations that Bennett, who has made a career of promoting virtue, has a million-dollar gambling habit is nectar to the left, especially those who recall Bennett's relentless condemnation of Bill Clinton's behavior in the White House. What better expunger of those historically stained times than learning that one of Clinton's public scolds, who served as Reagan's education secretary and the elder Bush's drug policy director, was nursing a near-pathological "vice" of his own.

The religious right, meanwhile, is faced with condemning one of its most muscular water carriers -or taking an uncharacteristic position of non-judgment. Does Bill Bennett's gambling habit compromise his moral standing, or is he (unlike others so easily condemned) free to indulge personal pleasures as he sees fit?

While one could argue that there's a clear difference between Clinton's and Bennett's respective behaviors -in addition to the fact that Bennett (ital) smokes (end ital) his cigars -there's a broad sense that Bennett is getting his deserved spin on the "gotcha" wheel. Objectively, while he may have been enjoying a legal pastime, the extent of his gambling reported in the millions seems like more than the harmless release he initially claimed. Likewise, his attempts to be discreet, gambling between midnight and 6 a.m., suggest that he may have considered his avocation, if not a problem, at least something of which he wasn't proud.

Indeed, in a statement Monday, Bennett said: "I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I wish to set. Therefore, my gambling days are over."

Whether gambling per se qualifies as a vice is for more virtuous Americans to debate. Playing games of risk doesn't cause a blip on my radar, in part because I'm not interested, but mostly because I believe people have a right to be stupid and self-destructive.

As for the alleged social costs of other people's vices, I remain skeptical. Whatever costs are incurred by people's victimless pursuits are probably less than whatever bureaucratic solutions we might create in trying to control human behavior. The drug war, which Bennett supports, is a good example. We spend far more fighting and prohibiting drugs, while criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens, than it would cost to educate and treat the weak and stupid.

Which is to say, I don't agree with everything Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues," supports, but I also don't disagree with much of what he stands for. It's hard to argue against his position that we've become morally flabby, personally irresponsible, and that we really ought to try to do better. The fact that he gambles in his free time with his own money, reports his winnings to the IRS and donates some to charity, doesn't alter the truth of those observations.

Nor does his "vice" necessarily make him a hypocrite, as some chum scavengers have suggested. Besides which, what's wrong with hypocrisy? Those inclined to pray each day shouldn't fail to include thanks for hypocrisy, which, let's face it, is the basis of civilization. We're all hypocrites, thank goodness.

Hypocrisy, which poet and essayist Matthew Arnold defined as "the tribute vice pays to virtue," is what gets children grown up and keeps the rest of us relatively well-behaved and kempt. The trick of course is to use hypocrisy to instruct rather than to self-justify. In other words, it's one thing to disagree with state-supported gambling, as Bennett has, while believing that individual gambling is permissible and, within limits, enjoyable. One does not necessarily preclude the other.

In any case, we can ill afford to demand that people who speak publicly in favor of moral behavior be morally perfect themselves. Not only would we perish of boredom, but we'd so limit the field of political candidates that we might as well skip the discussion and insert our feeding tubes.

The ironic parable of Bennett's gambling, though perhaps embarrassing to him, may have emerged at a propitious time, proffering a moral truth all its own: As we have become morally flabby, we also have become increasingly tyrannical in our pursuit of people's flaws.

Surely we don't want to be a nation of puritanical snoops who drive good people away from public service. The higher virtue would be to end this barbarism that "outs" people's private lives for public vivisection and consumption. As Bennett-the-gambler has noted correctly, we can and should do better.

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