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.
Gambling is a national problem. According to a 1997 Harvard Medical School study, some 7.5 million American adults are problem or pathological gamblers, as are 7.9 million adolescents. Americans spend an estimated $64 billion each year betting on everything from illegal cockfights to state-run lotteries. While some of this money is spent relatively innocently -- bingo night at the fire hall, with small stakes all going to charity, a friendly game of cards with friends or a couple of bucks in the office's sports pool -- much of gambling is unsavory business.
A few years ago, I visited a casino at an Indian reservation where I was vacationing. I was shocked to see so many elderly men and women -- many of them obviously destitute -- using credit cards to play slot machines with zombie-like fixation. Bill Bennett may have millions in discretionary income to waste on slot machines, but most people who gamble regularly don't. When I sat on the board of directors of a bus company a few years ago, I learned the busiest days for excursions to Las Vegas and Atlantic City were the days of the month when Social Security and welfare checks arrived in the mail.
"There is much unhappiness and personal distress in the world because of failures to control tempers, appetites, passions and impulses," Bennett writes in The Book of Virtues. "'Oh, if only I had stopped myself,' is an all too familiar refrain," he says. No doubt he's feeling the sting of those words himself these days.
But the prodigal Bill Bennett still has much to teach us about virtue, with the help of one virtue mysteriously missing from the chapter headings in his earlier tome: Humility.