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TO BECOME A BETTER MAN

National | Embarrassed by reports of his gambling habit, BILL BENNETT breaks a three-month public silence. In an exclusive print-media interview, he speaks in-depth about the scandal-and about his eagerness to re-enter the public debate

Issue: "Capitol stampede in Texas," Aug. 9, 2003

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."

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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."

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