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."
Kingie paid for part of my honeymoon by treating my husband and me to a week at the famous Desert Inn in Las Vegas. We, too, got the VIP treatment, with front row tables at the clubs with stars like Frank Sinatra, Tony Martin and Dean Martin singing right at us. We picked up an envelope at the front desk every morning, filled with big bills.
I never cared much for trying to beat the odds, but I watched little old ladies with blue hair and a gleam in their eyes, trying to hit a jackpot. They looked like they were having fun. They didn't look like they owed anyone back rent.
Daddy was a cracker-barrel philosopher with a strong sense of right and wrong even if sometimes practiced outside the law. "Don't ever forget, " he told me repeatedly, "where you stand depends on where you're sitting."
I thought about that line when I read the pious criticism directed at Bill Bennett. Ultimately his critics are the authentic hypocrites. If Bill Bennett's children went barefoot, if he cheated at cards or stole from the poor box they would have an argument. But he didn't.
The Art of Gambling Through History, by Arthur Flowers and Anthony Curtis, includes a collection of prints of different kinds of people of all ages, races and classes enjoying themselves at the gaming tables.
Ajax and Achilles play dice on a Grecian urn, circa 530 B.C. American Indians, elegantly clad in white buckskins, play cards in an 1867 painting called "Gambling for the Buck" by Jon Mix Stanley. Little-boy beggars shoot craps in a painting by Murillo in 1650; though they're dressed in rags, they're clean and happy ragamuffins enjoying an interlude at play. Blacks enjoy a game of pool in a hall where gambling was illegal but innocent in an American painting by Jacob Lawrence in 1970. The last painting shows traders on the exchange floor on Wall Street - the highest rollers of all.
Bill Bennett has lots of company. He'll survive the attack of the wussies. You can bet on it.