There's justice in the world after all," a friend said to me, chuckling over the news that William Bennett, the self-appointed Morality Czar, has been exposed as a slot machine junkie.
For many of us, genuine shock gave way to muted pleasure when we learned that Bennett had finally been knocked off his high horse. More pervasive than the ailing Billy Graham, more pompous than the fading Pat Robertson, less rhetorically entertaining than Jesse Jackson before the baby scandal, Bennett had for years kept popping up on TV talk shows and with endless books on morality and virtue to upbraid us for our moral shortcomings. Smugly pontificating, never allowing for the slightest possibility that he could be wrong, he lectured us like a stern missionary preaching to childish and half-naked natives.
A relative of mine who heard him speak at a conference of business executives in the Midwest a few years ago said Bennett was so "insufferable" that he had to leave the room.
A favorite theme of Bennett's is the need for personal self-control. He's written and spoken about the need for abstinence to control the spread of AIDS; about the wrongness of any movement to legalize drugs; and of the need to raise the spiritual condition of welfare recipients by requiring them to work longer hours and teaching them the benefits of marriage. And what made him apoplectic about Bill Clinton's presidency was that the man lacked self-discipline in his sexual life, and that Americans accepted him anyway.
It appears that when it came to gambling, a compulsive form of behavior and an addiction if ever there was one, Bennett didn't have much self-control either. When he wasn't berating us for our assorted moral failings, he was sitting in the high-rollers' room of some casino, gambling away $200,000 to $300,000 at a time.
But it's more than his revealed hypocrisy that makes Bennett's comeuppance so fitting. While he claims to defend ideals that all Americans embrace, he is in fact a pontificator of right-wing conservative Republican dogma. He defends the rightness of the war with Iraq on the ground that oppressed people depend on the United States for their deliverance, failing to mention that the real reasons we went over there were vengeance, hubris and American empire.
He calls for a color-blind society as one of the highest goals of American life, but equates Trent Lott's stupid defense of Strom Thurmond's racist politics to the University of Michigan's efforts to assemble a diverse student body. He denounces terrorism in the Mideast, but only that of Palestinians, not the incendiary behavior of the Israeli government. And while he's made raising the quality of the public schools a moral crusade, in the end it's all about "choice" and private sector gobbledygook, with not a single word about George W. Bush's failure to fund his own "No Child Left Behind" program. Without that support, kids in failing schools won't have much choice anyway.
Meanwhile, the moral correctness of Bennett's war on drugs has swelled our prisons and made a misery of the lives of people who, like him, suffer from an addiction.
His defenders claim it's not the same as if he had preached against gambling, while privately indulging in it himself. Bennett said his habit was under control, that he didn't spend the family milk money or ruin his finances. But when can $8 million in gambling losses be considered an innocent private pastime? And how happy could his wife have been about her husband's little tension-breaker?
His behavior is in keeping with that of other hypocrites, such as notable adulterers Henry Hyde and Newt Gingrich, who had such a field day with Bill Clinton's sexcapades.
Bennett now says he will stop gambling, since it's not an example he wants to set. Excuse me, but is that an admission that he even did anything wrong? Maybe now we'll hear a little less of Bennett's moralizing, which was always narrow and a little too convenient anyway.
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