Bill Bennett and the charge of hypocrisy

Posted: Jul 08, 2003 12:00 AM

The preoccupation with Bill Bennett's gambling has reaffirmed something I long ago realized: Only conservatives can be hypocrites.

Can you think of one prominent liberal ever labeled a hypocrite in the mainstream press? President Bill Clinton was labeled many things for his extramarital affairs and his lying, but never a hypocrite. But when the press discovers flawed behavior in the personal life of a prominent conservative, he is discredited as a hypocrite.

Why is this? Because you can only be a hypocrite if you violate standards that you promote or judge, and liberals rarely promote or judge personal behavior. Their moral preoccupations almost exclusively concern social positions. Liberals judge people by their positions on global warming, not by how they behave.

That is why conservative Bill Bennett was dismissed as a hypocrite for gambling while liberal Jesse Jackson, though a clergyman, was almost never labeled a hypocrite after the public learned that he had committed adultery, fathered a child out of wedlock and misappropriated funds earmarked for civil rights work. Jackson has the right liberal positions on social issues. Likewise Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and many other liberals who committed far worse sins. None is labeled a hypocrite.

This is not to say that conservatives cannot be hypocrites. Of course they can. Had Bill Bennett railed against gambling or argued that a public figure who gambles forfeits his moral authority, he would qualify as one. But everyone acknowledges that gambling was never one of Bennett's issues, and that he had acknowledged doing so long ago.

But what about Bennett's book attacking former President Clinton for his personal conduct (The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals)? Doesn't that book make Bennett a hypocrite?

No, it doesn't. Most of the book is about a president lying to the country and under oath, and in the chapter on Mr. Clinton's sexual infidelity, Bennett makes it clear that even adultery does not necessarily render a person unfit for leadership. He repeatedly notes that in assessing character and trustworthiness, context is king. It is within the context of a lifetime of infidelities, smearing the reputations of women who spoke of their affairs with him, groping a woman who sought his help in the Oval Office, using state troopers when governor of Arkansas to procure women, and lying, that Bennett criticized President Clinton. Bennett even defended past presidents (of both parties) who had extramarital affairs as individuals worthy of holding the nation's highest office.

But none of that matters to those who wish to label Bennett a hypocrite for gambling. What matters is that he is a conservative, advocates virtue, judged President Clinton guilty and gambled too much.

It is surely much easier to be a liberal in our times. You aren't judged.

But society is paying a terrible price for the quick dismissal of conservatives caught sinning. Fewer and fewer people will provide moral leadership, and fewer people will teach character development because the price of having one's private sins exposed is devastating. Bill Bennett's many books on virtue and character education are immensely valuable to America. Even in my most cynical moments, I do not believe that all liberals would like that work nullified.

But there is also a challenge to conservatives, especially religious conservatives who may likewise be tempted to dismiss Bill Bennett. They need to consider two matters.

First, even if you believe gambling is a sin, there are gradations of sin. While all sin may be "rebellion against God," God surely regards some sins (murder, for example) as worse than others (gambling, for example). That's why He isolated Ten Commandments above all others. So even those who believe that Bill Bennett has sinned can put his sin into moral and religious perspective.

Second, Bill Bennett has helped many people sin less. That he has sinned (if indeed he did) in no way alters that fact. It only makes it obvious that he knows how much we all have to struggle with temptations, and that actually makes him a better advocate of virtue and character.

That is why Bill Bennett still deserves to be read and heard. By conservatives as well as by liberals. By sinners as well as by saints.