William Bennett has done a world of good in his career, preaching the importance of traditional morality in our increasingly "anything-goes" culture. The former Reagan secretary of education and the first President Bush's drug czar became a best-selling author in 1993 with The Book of Virtues, an anthology of stories, folk tales and poems that taught the importance of honesty, courage, loyalty, self-discipline, work and other homey virtues. Now, Bennett finds himself the object of some derision after reporters Jonathan Alter and Joshua Green revealed that Bennett is a problem gambler who has lost millions at casinos over the last decade. Is Bennett finished as the nation's unofficial morality maven? I hope not, for our sake as much as his.
Bennett's first response to press reports of his high roller activities was uncharacteristically blasé. "I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the law. I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything," he said when confronted with the allegation that he had a gambling problem. It was the kind of statement Bennett would have excoriated had it come from anyone else. Just three weeks ago, Bennett reportedly lost over $500,000 at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, and last July, he lost $340,000 at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino, according to Green -- not exactly "the milk money" but appalling behavior nonetheless.
After two days of increasingly negative news stories, Bennett issued a statement saying: "It is true that I have gambled large sums of money. I have also complied with all laws on reporting wins and losses. Nevertheless, I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I wish to set. My gambling days are over."
I wish he had said more. This was -- in one of Bennett's favorite expressions -- a "teachable moment." He had the opportunity to help others by revealing his own struggles to overcome destructive personal behavior. Instead he chose to treat gambling as if it were akin to talking with his mouth full, a bad habit he could quit anytime he chooses.
Even if Bill Bennett is not a compulsive gambler, as his wife insisted in an interview with USA Today this week, he surely knows that gambling is at odds with the virtues he has so passionately espoused. Throughout his public life, Bennett has taught us to extol responsibility and hard work and to reject luck and chance as paths to success.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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