Civil Liberties

Shocked, Shocked

A morals czar's vice and the death of privacy


"The Bookie of Virtue." "The Man of Virtues Has a Vice." One could almost visualize the gleeful rubbing of hands in response to the revelation that conservative activist, moralist, and best-selling author William Bennett is a heavy gambler, a "preferred customer" in several Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos. Bennett, a former secretary of education and former "drug czar," has also been something of a self-appointed "morals czar" to the nation, celebrating old-fashioned virtues and castigating America's moral decline in his books, The Book of Virtues, The Moral Compass, and The Death of Outrage. To Bennett's liberal critics, he is the latest example of a self-righteous moralizer exposed as a hypocrite. To his conservative defenders, the liberals are the real hypocrites, claiming to champion privacy while joining a witch-hunt against Bennett for his private behavior.

Maybe the sad truth is that there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

Conservatives such as National Review's Jonah Goldberg point out that Bennett has never denounced gambling. But does this absolve him of the hypocrisy charge? Empower America, a nonprofit group he co-chairs, opposes the expansion of legalized gambling (it is currently outlawed in 22 states). Besides, as some of Bennett's critics persuasively point out, one might detect a whiff of hypocrisy when a person makes a career of condemning various private "vices" but tacitly exempts one in which he indulges.

Bennett and his defenders have argued that his gambling hurts no one, and thus concerns no one but himself and his family. One could spend a lot of time dissecting the details of Bennett's pastime, which he has now pledged to give up. If his casino losses, as The Washington Monthly has reported, may total over $8 million in the past decade, is there much plausibility to his claim that he has just about broken even thanks to his winnings? (The consensus seems to be no.) Is he "in denial" when he says that his gambling has never been out of control and has not hurt his family life? It's hard to tell; we don't know, for instance, whether Bennett's wife was aware of the extent of his habit.

One thing is certain: Bennett has been vocal in his condemnation of ostensibly harmless private activities such as consumption of pornography and recreational use of marijuana. With regard to the latter, he has called not only for public judgment but for criminal punishment. As Slate's William Saletan notes, Bennett has maintained that casual drug users who can "handle it"—just as he says he could handle gambling—must be held accountable for supporting an industry that wreaks havoc on other people's lives. Why shouldn't he be judged by the same standard?

But the Bennett brouhaha is not just about general issues of private behavior and public morality. Looming behind his mini-scandal is the specter of the conservatives' crusade against President Clinton, which focused on his private sins and ultimately resulted in his impeachment—and in which Bennett was a leader. The Washington Monthly article snidely points out that Bennett "gambled throughout impeachment"; the Web edition of The American Spectator laments that "Bill Clinton is smiling as yet another of his chief antagonists receives public comeuppance for his own sins."

In National Review Online, Goldberg bristles at the comparison of Bennett's perfectly legal activities to "lying under oath [and] `sleeping' with interns." However, consensual sex with an intern is not, to my knowledge, illegal in any state. Yes, Clinton lied under oath about a sexual affair. But one reason most Americans were not very upset by it is that they felt it was no one's business to ask him that question.

Goldberg also argues that hypocrisy is not as bad as proudly flaunting one's misbehavior. Indeed, I would agree that for a public figure, having a discreet extramarital relationship is preferable to publicly mocking fidelity and monogamy. But Clinton did not flaunt his misbehavior; his conservative opponents labored relentlessly to expose it. The irony, of course, is that they were aided in this endeavor by the expansion of sexual harassment laws which Clinton supported—allied as he was with orthodox feminists whose ideology is every bit as oppressive, and as antithetical to true privacy, as that of the hard-line social conservatives.

So Clinton was hoist on his own petard, just as Bennett is now. A few years ago, Bennett deplored the American public's tolerance of Clinton's sexual misdeeds in his best-seller, The Death of Outrage. But perhaps the real tragedy of the Clinton scandals—one that has now struck at Bennett—has been the death of privacy.