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May 10, 2003
Column #1,132

A Man of Virtues Has a Vice

     "There is no one righteous, not even one." Romans 3:10

     That verse came to mind when Newsweek and The Washington Monthly reported last weekend that Bill Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues," lost "more than $8 million" in a decade of casino gambling.

     Internal casino documents reveal he wired $1.4 million to cover losses at one casino over two months. His game of choice: video poker and slot machines, some at $500 a pull.

     As Secretary of Education under Reagan, he excoriated schools for lax academic standards. As drug czar under President Bush I, he argued that addicts have a responsibility to confess their addiction and get help. His book on the Clinton scandal, "The Death of Outrage," tartly took issue with Billy Graham's forgiving the President: "Forgiveness is being granted without admission of guilt, without apology, without repentance. Forgiveness is becoming a synonym for lax standards and tolerance for (and acceptance of) transgressions."

     Small wonder that liberal defenders of Clinton gleefully pounced on Bennett, such as Michael Kinsley who wrote "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."

     Ten years ago, his "Book of Virtues" became a best-seller. Its first chapter is on "Self-Discipline." He introduced an old English fairy tale with these words that may now haunt him:

"Sometimes fortune offers us close calls we should take as warnings. Heaving a sigh of relief is not enough; if we are smart, we'll change our behavior. Self-discipline is learned in the face of adversity."

     He did not take his own advice initially, telling writers Joshua Green and Jonathan Alter that, "I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the law. I don't play the `milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything." The reporters did not contradict him on those points.

     However, Bennett also claimed he's beaten the odds: "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even," sparking laughter from casino sources. "I've made a lot of money (in book sales, speaking fees and business ventures) and I've won a lot of money. When I win, I usually give at least a chunk of it away (to charity). I report everything to the IRS."

     These are the words of a man speaking "without admission of guilt, without apology, without repentance," to quote his words on Clinton.

     However, in the cold light of Monday morning - and doubtless after some painful discussion with his savvy wife, Elayne - Bennett issued a terse statement confessing, "It is true that I have gambled large sums of money... I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I want to set. Therefore, my gambling days are over."

     That comment drew praise from prominent conservatives such as Chuck Colson. Concerned Women for America said it "commends our friend Bill Bennett's bold move to cease gambling, despite an absence of personal conviction."

     However, experts on gambling are far more guarded in their reactions. Rev. Tom Grey, a United Methodist pastor who directs the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said that Bennett appears to be one of the 5.5 million pathological gamblers whose addiction "is hidden to the victims themselves."

     For example, Bennett thinks he can quit gambling "as a matter of willpower," which is highly unlikely. "The cure rate in Gamblers Anonymous is 8 percent, which suggests the likelihood of going cold turkey is small. He will need help."

     Dr. Valerie Lorenz of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, adds, "I am not aware of anyone who is able to stop on their own." She works out a treatment plan in cooperation with the spouse of the gambler, who undergoes 4-7 individual therapy sessions a day for a month at a cost of $15,000. The therapy saves three out of four gamblers.

     Grey hopes Bennett seeks such help so that he can "recognize the extent to which gambling had hooked him. If so, his personal tragedy could have a happy ending, transforming him to a fighting zealot against gambling. He was absolutely fearless in his attack on drugs.

     "If he could develop an equal fervor over this form of addiction - it could be a turning point in the future of America on gambling. We have not had someone who could speak with the type of authority Bill Bennett has."

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