David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 5/9/03
This week's news of self-appointed virtue czar William Bennett's multi-million dollar dalliance with high-stakes gambling appalled and amused. Bennett's conservative Christian allies were unhappy because they consider gambling a sin; doubtless many others who don't take a moral view on the issue but are concerned about the misfortunes attending compulsive gambling were also negatively impressed by the sheer scale of it.
Critics of Bennett's moralizing were entertained by the hypocrisy -- and not for the first time. The former education secretary and drug czar -- whose malevolent drug and education protege John Walters is the current drug czar -- seems to frequently indulge in vices lying outside the focus of his rhetoric of the day, ceasing only after they are exposed. While pontificating as drug czar on the evils of drugs, including marijuana, and the need to severely punish drug users, he continued to smoke cigarettes until it was noted in the media. While Bennett's alcohol consumption has not yet drawn significant scrutiny, stories abound in private circles of his taste for mixed drinks, not only for dinner or parties, but in the morning and at other eyebrow-raising hours.
Now that his excessive gambling habits have been aired in the media, Bennett promises never to gamble again. "I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I wish to set," he wrote in a statement released for the benefit of conservative organizations upset by the news. Still, he couldn't help but defend the success of his gambling financially -- Bennett claims to have won more than he's lost over time, telling magazines "you don't see what I walk away with."
That seems unlikely -- casinos are designed to make a profit, which means the more you gamble, the more certain you are to ultimately lose money. That's why the casinos were happy to provide Bennett with free hotel rooms and limousine rides worth tens of thousands of dollars, according to reports. Even if he did make money, as he said, he was statistically likely to fall that much further if he kept going.
But using Bennett's own logic, making that comment may be an even bigger sin than the gambling itself. Among Bennett's ideological notions as drug czar was the idea that casual drug users are a bigger problem than addicts -- he's said they should go to prison for long periods of time -- because their existence sends the message that drugs can be used safely, thereby encouraging others to use drugs.
Now I don't happen to believe casual drug users have that effect or that the kind of harm that Bennett is suggesting results from it if they do; I could be wrong, but I know of no evidence to indicate it. I do, however, consider it entirely possible that tales of success in gambling could encourage others to gamble, some of whom would develop serious problems. That could also be untrue; only a sociological study would tell us one way or the other. But certainly it's not less likely on the surface than Bennett's claim about the effect of casual drug users. Yet Bennett was willing to tell a national media outlet he had won enough to offset a loss of millions of dollars, revealing that information to millions of potential gamblers.
Not a great move for a professional punishment advocate. Maybe it's time for Bill Bennett to walk off the stage and sit down.