Holier than Bennett

Posted: May 09, 2003 12:00 AM

The self-appointed hypocrisy police made a big bust last week, when the Washington Monthly and Newsweek both reported that Bill Bennett, former U. S. secretary of education, drug czar and author of The Book of Virtues, has been a big-stakes gambler at U.S. casinos.

It's difficult to understand the authors' apparent horror at Bennett's high-stakes hobby. Bennett has a personal problem, it seems, but where's the news?

"By furtively indulging in a costly vice that destroys millions of lives and families across the nation, Bennett has profoundly undermined the credibility of his word on this moral issue," Washington Monthly authors Joshua Green and Jonathan Alter huffed in their expose. Other critics have gone further, as they've pronounced that Bennett's bad habit has undermined any claim he makes of being a supporter of traditional morality.

You see, in the world of journalism, something isn't bad because of its effect or consequences. An activity is wrong only if it signals a journalist's idea of -- shudder -- hypocrisy.

As the late columnist Meg Greenfield once noted, "If a politician murders his mother, the first response of the press or of his opponents will likely be not that it was a terrible thing to do, but rather that in a statement made six years before he had gone on record as being opposed to matricide." She understood the banal J-school logic that finds a murder to be worse if the killer once condemned murder.

I should mention that it's not clear that Bennett is a hypocrite on gambling. After all, The Book of Virtues is a treasury of "great moral stories." Bennett never wrote a book or launched a crusade against gambling in America. His group, Empower America, has no position on gambling, according to spokesman Jeff Kwitowski. In 1996, Bennett told Time Magazine, "I'm against state expansion of gambling, state advertising encouraging people to gamble and gambling as a way to make a living. But adults on their own time ..."

So, with an absence of any clear contradiction in Bennett's public and private take on gambling per se, critics are reduced to arguing that since Bennett styles himself as a proponent of virtue, he must meet the standards of all virtues, even those he has not espoused. That is, Bennett has to meet standards that people who don't like virtue-crats set for virtue-crats.

It's so convenient. Under the anti-Bennett criteria, conservatives' personal lives are open to scrutiny, while liberals' private lives are nobody's business. Somehow, there was no hypocrisy in Bill Clinton's womanizing, when he posed as a committed spouse. There's no hypocrisy in journalists opposing the Patriot Act because it infringes on an individual's right to privacy while they expose the private pastime of individuals of a different mind.

But I digress. What I really don't understand is why Bennett's critics are enraged at what they consider hypocrisy. If it's wrong to extol virtue, it should be wrong to condemn a vice like hypocrisy.

Yet, there was the smug, disdainful and intolerant Slate columnist Michael Kinsley bashing Bennett for being a hypocrite, as well as "smug, disdainful, intolerant" in his support of virtue.

In fact, the Bennett story reveals an active jihad against moral standards in America. If Bennett never extolled a virtue, if he never commended honesty or fidelity, if he didn't try to live up to ideals concerning hard work and self-discipline, his privacy would be sacrosanct. Since he believes in something, however, he's a target.

There's no voice that sounds more "holier-than-thou" than that of a critic complaining that someone thinks of himself as "holier-than-thou."