Bennett's vice

Posted: May 06, 2003 12:00 AM

The anti-virtuecrats are giddy today. News that Bill Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues and other cultural landmarks, has a vice has gladdened the malicious hearts of those who think condemning sin is much more grievous than practicing it.

Here's Slate's Michael Kinsley: "Sinners have long cherished the fantasy that William Bennett, the virtue magnate, might be among our number. The news over the weekend -- that Bennett's $50,000 sermons and best-selling moral instruction manuals have financed a multimillion dollar gambling habit -- has lit a lamp of happiness in even the darkest hearts. ... Maybe there is a God after all."

First, full disclosure: I am proud to call Bill Bennett my friend. Second, Mike Kinsley is the personification of snide. He delights in news of Bennett's gambling habit because, he argues, self-righteousness is obnoxious. Yes, self-righteousness is obnoxious (and so is schadenfreude, Mr. Kinsley), but Bill Bennett has never been guilty of self-righteousness. He has always carefully resisted others' attempts to portray him as some sort of exemplar, pleading that he was far from perfect.

Bennett-loathers, in a bit of imperial overstretch, are hoping that this revelation about gambling will vitiate everything the man has said or written during the past decade. Not happening.

Does this mean that the "virtue czar" is under no obligation to practice what he preaches? Obviously not. But let's be honest about where gambling fits on the moral spectrum. It's not an uplifting activity, true enough. But neither is it on a par with lying, cheating, stealing or double-crossing.

Vices are not necessarily sins. If Bennett had been involved in dishonest business dealings, tax cheating, drugs or an extra-marital affair, his career would be over. But gambling?

I think I was a teen-ager before I ever learned that anyone thought gambling was immoral. In my family, drinking was heavily stigmatized, but gambling was what you did at Hannukah with pennies and dreidels.

Even assuming that the Newsweek and Washington Monthly stories are correct and Bennett gambled millions of dollars, the habit doesn't become a moral matter as long as he can afford it. If he lost millions, but can still meet all of his obligations, well, it's a very expensive form of relaxation, but why is that immoral? Suppose he had spent a comparable amount of money on a luxurious yacht, or vacation homes in London, Paris and Rio (and he may have, for all we know). Would that make headlines? No way.

This is not to say that gambling can never rise to the level of sin. If someone gambles, in Bennett's words, "the milk money" or the mortgage payment, that's a moral failing.

It's a bit like drinking. When does drinking become a moral lapse (leaving aside for now the question as to whether alcoholism is a disease)? If you drink a lot at social occasions and every day at home but never get behind the wheel under the influence, shout at your wife and kids or lose a day of work due to drinking, you are not morally culpable. People might call you a heavy drinker, but they're likely to add that you can hold your liquor. Your wife might urge you to cut back, on the grounds that the odds of something untoward happening are increased when you drink too much. But from society's point of view, you are not a reprobate.

Similarly, when you gamble without causing any hardship to your family or incurring debts you cannot manage, you may be unwise, but you are not, in my judgment, immoral.

Bill Bennett is a great American. I know that he has personally set up a scholarship fund to help inner-city kids pay for college and has donated generously to many other causes. His contribution to public life has been outstanding -- a unique combination of erudition, sound judgment, level-headedness and lively wit. The dirt-seekers will have to come up with more than lost money at the casinos to tarnish his well-earned reputation for rectitude.