Bill Bennett still isn't ready
to say that all gambling is a sin. But now he does say, for the record, that for him personally, the gambling he did was a sin.
"It was a sin because it was a bad use of time and resources. Mortal sin? Venial sin? Something in the middle? I have no idea. But excess, for sure."
Mr. Bennett's reference was to the revelation in early May that he had for some years squandered significant time and money in gambling. Some reports claim he gambled away as much as $8 million. Mr. Bennett says that figure is too high. Sometimes he suggests he broke even, but he also concedes he played with "a big amount of money." In any case, he says he is now done with gambling. Period.
The blunt admission came in an interview with WORLD last week in his Washington office. William J. Bennett, the originator, compiler, and editor of the bestselling Book of Virtues, said plainly he had blown it with the very first virtue listed: self-control.
"There aren't many stimuli I've met that I didn't like. Eating, drinking, smoking-all of them. Always a struggle with a diet. Drinking a lot in college, always trying to keep an eye on it. Smoking-I had to quit when I was the drug czar; it was a ridiculous distraction. That's the way I'm built."
But clearly weighing as much on Mr. Bennett's conscience as his loss of personal self-control was his sense that he had betrayed a loyal following. He keeps handy a letter from a mother in Oklahoma whose daughter had heard him give a speech and had been very moved and excited. Now that daughter, reading in the paper about Mr. Bennett's gambling, was disillusioned. "She was crushed, and she cried," the mother reported.
"I guess in general I realized I had disappointed some people," Mr. Bennett said. "But that letter had a name on it. As Shakespeare said, it gave the abstraction 'a habitation and a name.' I keep hearing that mother say, 'How could you have done this?'"
"I am sorry to have disappointed you and your daughter," Mr. Bennett wrote back. "The messenger is deeply flawed, the message is not. Please do not throw away the Book of Virtues; those thoughts originated with many other brilliant and admirable people, not me."
"I want to say I'm sorry-to the woman and her daughter, and to everyone else," says the man who has been secretary of education, drug czar, and, his cynical critics say, self-appointed "morality czar" for the nation.
Mr. Bennett explains, a bit defensively, that he was not as secretive about his gambling habit as some have suggested. He regularly saw, and was seen by, people he knew at the casinos where he played. One time, while he was playing poker in Las Vegas, he says there was a whole line of people with their copies of Children's Book of Virtues they wanted him to autograph.
And he tells how, just a few months ago, "when I was asked by a reporter whether I would ever run for president, I said it was too early to think about that-but that maybe on the other hand I'd do the world series of poker-but not both."
But then, checking the impulse to explain things away, he hurries to admit candidly: "I think I was trying to do two things. I was making light of it, but I was also in my own mind doing some kind of public confession. Maybe I was doing damage control. I figured perhaps that this would come out, and then I could say I had never really tried to hide it."
On a related issue, Mr. Bennett said he understood the public's concern about a historical link between gambling and organized crime. "I actually talked to several people about this-including a former FBI official whom I know very well. They all assured me that the industry now is so highly regulated and watched that the influence of organized crime is gone." Even so, he said, "I know there are dark corners in Las Vegas. I was never a part of that. When I went to Las Vegas I would give speeches, gamble, attend a few fights-boxing matches-and that's all. But again, my gambling days are over."
Mr. Bennett spends even less time now trying to reconcile the varied views of gambling among his associates and friends. "Gambling's not a sin in my church. My friend (I didn't know it) Mario Cuomo was all over TV saying, 'It's not one of the seven capital sins.' Fine-but-it was excessive."
He also reflected how fellow Catholics have tended to ask, "What's the big deal?" "And Jewish friends have done the same. When I was up in the casino until one or two in the morning, I'd see rabbis. 'This is not a problem,' one of them would explain to me, 'The Torah says a man should not make his living this way; but otherwise, good luck!'"
"But I was never the morality czar," Mr. Bennett confesses. "I was never anything but the 'chief of sinners.' And I've said so on many different occasions. Now I want to say it again.... I don't offer this as a rationalization-because that's not the part that's wrong. The part that's wrong is the use of my time and my resources in that way."
Mr. Bennett said he chose to speak first to WORLD, even before his July 26 appearance with Tim Russert of Meet the Press, because evangelical Christians, in particular, were most genuinely offended and disappointed by the revelation of his gambling habit. Those same people, though, he says, at the very same time tended to be the most forgiving. Among the first to communicate with him were Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship and James Dobson of Focus on the Family. He sensed the messages were not just pro forma. "It was a genuine embrace," he recalls. "I felt that embrace."
In the weeks since then, "I stopped a lot of the usual action in my life and have done a kind of inventory of myself-the good, the bad, and the ugly. I've done a pretty honest and rigorous assessment, aided by prayer, friends, and wife-in reverse order of toughness. And that's been good for me. The task is, and put this in capital letters, to become a better man-to reflect on all this so that I can become a better man."
The remorse and regrets return. "What I did was wrong," Mr. Bennett said again. "I let people down. I let people down who were looking to me, whether I wanted to be looked to or not, who were taking me and my counsel seriously, and who just felt disappointed in me. Let down-maybe worse.
"The message is the same. The validity of the message doesn't depend on the messenger. But, the better the messenger, the more plausible the message can be to the listener-not the more accurate or more correct, but more plausible. In that sense, I made my own message less plausible."
But however reflective he may be over the embarrassments of recent weeks, Bill Bennett is chafing to get back into the fray. The stakes in the culture war may never have been higher, he says, and "I'm like the guy who walked down the street, saw a fight going on, and asked, 'Is this a private fight, or can anybody get in on it?' That's me."
He's eager to be part of the debate over homosexual marriage (he favors something stronger and more immediate than a constitutional amendment). He thinks terrorism remains a unique and under-recognized threat to America. He considers the nation's educational crisis to be more serious than ever, and worries about an expansion of the federal government's role in the education of very young children.
"Your readers, and others, will decide whether they want to listen to me," says the man who knows how profoundly his own actions have jeopardized the hearing and following he used to have.
The last people William Bennett worries about right now are those who have always despised him: "The gloaters, the cynics, those who said 'Good, good!' when I stumbled-they have their own problems."
He's got the trust and support of his wife Elayne, although he says he's heard nothing from his worst critics he didn't hear first from her. "She's a Catholic now, but [on this issue] she shows her Methodist roots, her North Carolina roots." And he's got the trust and support of his two teenage sons-the older of whom heads off in just a few weeks for his freshman year at college.
Will he also regain the trust and support of that broad segment of the American public that has taken him so seriously for the last decade or two? Nobody reflects more soberly about that question, nor more honestly and realistically, than does Bill Bennett himself.