Suzanne Fields

Speaking of excess, I worry more about Bill Bennett's appetite at the dinner table than his appetite at the roulette table. Girth is considerably more lethal than gambling, but who's counting?

A lot of the people who criticize Bennett's gambling, that's who. You can bet they don't have his physical health in mind. They want only to saddle up and join the Gotcha Patrol. Bill Bennett writes passionately about the importance of character and as far as anyone can tell his reputation on that score is untouched by scandal. The critics riding their high horses are what my daddy called "squaw men," who don't have the courage to participate in a game of chance but who tattle on those who do.

I have an affection for gamblers because my father was one. Daddy was a bookmaker - that's bookmaker as in Al the Knocker, not Alfred A. Knopf - and he supported us with his honest games. I once remarked to Joe Hirshhorn, who donated his paintings and sculpture to the museum on the Mall, that he and my father sprang from similar origins: both were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in America penniless, worked hard, kept an eye cocked for the risk with the right odds, and prospered.

"What does your father do?" he asked.

"He was a bookmaker."

"Ah, he's in publishing."

"Not exactly. He doesn't make that kind of book."

"Ah," he said, grinning appreciatively. "That kind of book."

What Daddy had was a small-change operation on a high-volume basis. It wasn't exactly Las Vegas. It wasn't even Bill Clinton's Hot Springs. He called it "the McDonald's of Vegas for people who deserve a break today, but can't afford to go to Nevada to get it." It was also illegal.

Years later I stood with my father at the opening of one of the big new casinos in Atlantic City. He shook his head, hardly believing the sight of the rows upon rows of flashing lights at Bally's Park Place Casino. "I had only one craps table, one blackjack game, and four slot machines. Nothing like this. And a lot of men with less than I got 10 years as a guest of Uncle Sam for their trouble."

Most of Daddy's friends were colorful characters out of Damon Runyon, with funny names like Tink, Beanie, Kingie. The ones I knew were generous to their families, friends, church and synagogue - considerably more generous, in fact, than some of the rich men in "legit" businesses who looked down their noses at Daddy's "profession."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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