The Bookie of Virtue
Tuesday 6 May 2003
William J. Bennett has made millions lecturing people on morality--and 0ablown it on gambling.
"We should know that too much of anything, even 0aa good thing, may prove to be our undoing...[We] need ... to set definite 0aboundaries on our appetites."
--The Book of Virtues, by William J. 0aBennett
No person can be more rightly credited with making morality and personal 0aresponsibility an integral part of the political debate than William J. Bennett. 0aFor more than 20 years, as a writer, speaker, government official, and political 0aoperative, Bennett has been a commanding general in the culture wars. As Ronald 0aReagan's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he was the 0ascourge of academic permissiveness. Later, as Reagan's secretary of education, 0ahe excoriated schools and students for failing to set and meet high standards. 0aAs drug czar under George H.W. Bush, he applied a get-tough approach to drug 0ause, arguing that individuals have a moral responsibility to own up to their 0aaddiction. Upon leaving public office, Bennett wrote The Book of Virtues, a 0acompendium of parables snatched up by millions of parents and teachers across 0athe political spectrum. Bennett's crusading ideals have been adopted by 0apoliticians of both parties, and implemented in such programs as character 0aeducation classes in public schools--a testament to his impact.
But Bennett, a devout Catholic, has always been more Old Testament than New. 0aEven many who sympathize with his concerns find his combative style haughty and 0aunforgiving. Democrats in particular object to his partisan sermonizing, which 0aportrays liberals as inherently less moral than conservatives, more given to 0aexcusing personal weaknesses, and unwilling to confront the vices that destroy 0afamilies. During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Bennett was among the 0apresident's most unrelenting detractors. His book, The Death of Outrage, 0adecried, among other things, the public's failure to take Clinton's sins more 0aseriously.
His relentless effort to push Americans to do good has enabled Bennett to do 0aextremely well. His best-selling The Book of Virtues spawned an entire cottage 0aindustry, from children's books to merchandizing tie-ins to a PBS cartoon 0aseries. Bennett commands $50,000 per appearance on the lecture circuit and has 0areceived hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from such conservative 0abenefactors as the Scaife and John M. Olin foundations.
Few vices have escaped Bennett's withering scorn. He has opined on everything 0afrom drinking to "homosexual unions" to "The Ricki Lake Show" to wife-swapping. 0aThere is one, however, that has largely escaped Bennett's wrath: gambling. This 0ais a notable omission, since on this issue morality and public policy are deeply 0aintertwined. During Bennett's years as a public figure, casinos, once restricted 0ato Nevada and New Jersey, have expanded to 28 states, and the number continues 0ato grow. In Maryland, where Bennett lives, the newly elected Republican governor 0aRobert Ehrlich is trying to introduce slot machines to fill revenue shortfalls. 0aAs gambling spreads, so do its associated problems. Heavy gambling, like drug 0ause, can lead to divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and bankruptcy. 0aAccording to a 1998 study commissioned by the National Gambling Impact Study 0aCommission, residents within 50 miles of a casino are twice as likely to be 0aclassified as "problem" or "pathological" gamblers than those who live further 0aaway.
If Bennett hasn't spoken out more forcefully on an issue that would seem 0atailor-made for him, perhaps it's because he is himself a heavy gambler. Indeed, 0ain recent weeks word has circulated among Washington conservatives that his 0awagering could be a real problem. They have reason for concern. The Washington 0aMonthly and Newsweek have learned that over the last decade Bennett has made 0adozens of trips to casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where he is a "preferred customer" at several of them, and sources and documents provided to 0aThe Washington Monthly put his total losses at more than $8 million.
"I don't play the 'milk money.'"
Bennett has been a high-roller since at least the early 1990s. A review of 0aone 18-month stretch of gambling showed him visiting casinos, often for two or 0athree days at a time (and enjoying a line of credit of at least $200,000 at 0aseveral of them). Bennett likes to be discreet. "He'll usually call a host and 0alet us know when he's coming," says one source. "We can limo him in. He prefers 0athe high-limit room, where he's less likely to be seen and where he can play the $500-a-pull slots. He usually plays very late at night or early in the 0amorning--usually between midnight and 6 a.m." The documents show that in one 0atwo-month period, Bennett wired more than $1.4 million to cover losses. His 0adesire for privacy is evident in his customer profile at one casino, which lists 0aas his residence the address for Empower.org (the Web site of Empower America, 0athe non-profit group Bennett co-chairs). Typed across the form are the words: "NO CONTACT AT RES OR BIZ!!!"
Bennett's gambling has not totally escaped public notice. In 1998, The 0aWashington Times reported in a light-hearted front-page feature story that he 0aplays low-stakes poker with a group of prominent conservatives, including Robert 0aBork, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. 0aA year later, the same paper reported that Bennett had been spotted at the new 0aMirage Resorts Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, where he was reputed to have won a $200,000 jackpot. Bennett admitted to the Times that he had visited the casino, 0abut denied winning $200,000. Documents show that, in fact, he won a $25,000 0ajackpot on that visit--but left the casino down $625,000.
Bennett--who gambled throughout Clinton's impeachment--has continued this 0apattern in subsequent years. On July 12 of last year, for instance, Bennett lost $340,000 at Caesar's Boardwalk Regency in Atlantic City. And just three weeks 0aago, on April 5 and 6, he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. "There's a term in the trade for this kind of gambler," says a casino source who 0ahas witnessed Bennett at the high-limit slots in the wee hours. "We call them 0alosers."
Asked by Newsweek columnist and Washington Monthly contributing editor 0aJonathan Alter to comment on the reports, Bennett admitted that he gambles but 0anot that he has ended up behind. "I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the 0alaw. I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't 0aowe anyone anything." The documents offer no reason to contradict Bennett on 0athese points. Bennett claims he's beaten the odds: "Over 10 years, I'd say I've 0acome out pretty close to even."
"You can roll up and down a lot in one day, as we have on many occasions," 0aBennett explains. "You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening 0aand net out only a few thousand."
"I've made a lot of money [in book sales, speaking fees and other business 0aventures] and I've won a lot of money," adds Bennett. "When I win, I usually 0agive at least a chunk of it away [to charity]. I report everything to the IRS."
But the documents show only a few occasions when he turns in chips worth $30,000 or $40,000 at the end of an evening. Most of the time, he draws down his 0aline of credit, often substantially. A casino source, hearing of Bennett's claim 0ato breaking even on slots over 10 years, just laughed.
"You don't see what I walk away with," Bennett says. "They [casinos] don't 0awant you to see it."
Explaining his approach, Bennett says: "I've been a 'machine person' [slot 0amachines and video poker]. When I go to the tables, people talk--and they want 0ato talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax." 0aHe says he was in Las Vegas in April for dinner with the former governor of 0aNevada and gambled while he was there.
Bennett says he has made no secret of his gambling. "I've gambled all my life 0aand it's never been a moral issue with me. I liked church bingo when I was 0agrowing up. I've been a poker player."
But while Bennett's poker playing and occasional Vegas jaunt are known to 0asome Washington conservatives, his high-stakes habit comes as a surprise to many 0afriends. "We knew he went out there [to Las Vegas] sometimes, but at that level? 0aWow!" said one longtime associate of Bennett.
Despite his personal appetites, Bennett and his organization, Empower 0aAmerica, oppose the extension of casino gambling in the states. In a recent 0aeditorial, his Empower America co-chair Jack Kemp inveighed against lawmakers 0awho "pollute our society with a slot machine on every corner." The group 0arecently published an Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, with an introduction 0awritten by Bennett, that reports 5.5 million American adults as "problem" or "pathological" gamblers. Bennett says he is neither because his habit does not 0adisrupt his family life.
When reminded of studies that link heavy gambling to divorce, bankruptcy, 0adomestic abuse, and other family problems he has widely decried, Bennett 0acompared the situation to alcohol.
"I view it as drinking," Bennett says. "If you can't handle it, don't do it."
Bennett is a wealthy man and may be able to handle losses of hundreds of 0athousands of dollars per year. Of course, as the nation's leading spokesman on 0avirtue and personal responsibility, Bennett's gambling complicates his public 0arole. Moreover, it has already exacted a cost. Like him or hate him, William 0aBennett is one of the few public figures with a proven ability to influence 0apublic policy by speaking out. By furtively indulging in a costly vice that 0adestroys millions of lives and families across the nation, Bennett has 0aprofoundly undermined the credibility of his word on this moral issue.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is 0adistributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in 0areceiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)