HEARTS | "moral leaders"

BILL BENNETT : ace of hearts
(B, CH, L) (what do these signs mean?)

Perhaps the most interesting strategy pursued by the Radical Right is their irritating claim to moral superiority. Among the self-righteously smug, Bill Bennett has been among the worst. He is intimately associated with the "culture war," particularly beginning in the 1980s, where he blamed people more "liberal" than he for virtually all our problems.

Bennett served as former chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities and Secretary of Education under President Reagan, and under President Bush the Elder, Drug Czar, where he advocated a hard line against all drug use. He also wrote, or rather compiled, many books, most importantly The Book of Virtues, and most ironically given his lack of military service, Why We Fight. Bennett has done very well as the Radical Right's favorite cultural scold, pulling in as much as $50,000 for a lecture on virtue.

Recently Bennett has been in the news due to his gambling habit. We will discuss the issue briefly, primarily as an example of far more serious failings on his part: hypocrisy and dishonesty. As our readers may or may not know, Bennett was discovered to have lost as much as $8 million dollars gambling, primarily in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. His preferred games in the casinos are slot machines and video poker. No one is perfect, but the immense scale of his losses combined with Bennett's eagerness to be a spokesperson for "virtue" at $50,000 a pop does put his actions in a peculiar light. He charges more for speaking one night on virtue than most of us earn in a year.

Bennett's initial defense was: "I view it [gambling] as drinking. If you can't handle it, don't do it." This is identical to one of the most common arguments by people who smoke marijuana. They can handle it, so leave them alone. This libertarian argument, if he consistently followed, would leave Bennett with a lot less to say. For example, many of the pot smokers he worked so hard to put in jail probably could have made the argument with much more truthfulness than Bennett's defense of his gambling. For Bennett to apply reasoning in defense of his own actions that he rejects when used by others is hypocrisy.

In addition, the organization of which Bennett is co-chair, "Empower America," actively opposes extending casino gambling across the US. Does Bennett believe that gambling should be available to people who can "handle it," if they are rich enough to fly frequently to Vegas and Atlantic City, and otherwise barred unless they live close by? If not, and if hypocrisy has any meaning at all, Bennett's a hypocrite twice over. Whatever income he received from Empower America helped support his gambling. We are sure the contributors would have approved. Maybe that explains his secrecy (see below).

Bennett claims that because no one is perfect, he isn't hypocritical. This doesn't work because of the way he attacks others whose morals don't live up to his standards. Most of us praise virtues we wish we better exemplified. But we don't charge people lots of money to talk about them. If he ever referred to his personal failings to demonstrate a more compassionate approach to dealing with others' failings, we'd give him a pass. But compassion seems to be a sound bite for the Radical Right, not a word with any real meaning.

Bennett is apparently also a liar. How else can we make sense of the following statements? When the size of his gambling losses first became public knowledge, Bennett said: "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even." He elaborated, "You don't see what I walk away with," Bennett says. "They [casinos] don't want you to see it."

Now Bennett has changed his tune. In an interview with Tim Russert Bennett said the following:

TIM RUSSERT: Did you lose a lot of money?
BILL BENNETT: I lost money. Overall, you lose money. And that's a-- important lesson, I think-- you can draw a lesson here. You will lose at the end of the day. They say it's not hard to-- win, it's hard to leave winning. And that's true, the house-- the house will get you. I didn't lose what's been reported in the papers.
TIM RUSSERT: $8 million.
BILL BENNETT: No, of course not. Certainly not.
TIM RUSSERT: But significant sums.
BILL BENNETT: I-- I lost-- I lost enough money to-- to make a difference-- in terms of-- you know,-- (CLEARS THROAT) counting up has made a difference in our lives. But-- I'd-- I certainly know what I lost.
I-- I don't really think-- the amounts are anybody's business but-- the family's and the I.R.S.. But, yeah, I lost. And-- over eight or ten years, you will lose.


Even in this interview, he appeared to lie again. Bennett said ". . . I never claimed privacy about the fact that I was gambling. I was very public about it." And "Look-- (CLEARS THROAT) you know, the-- one thing about my relationship with the American people is I've been honest, I've been truthful. And I'm being honest and truthful-- truthful here."

But MSNBC reports that "His customer profile at one casino lists an address that corresponds to Empower.org, the Web site of Empower America, the group Bennett cochairs. But typed across the form are the words: NO CONTACT AT RES OR BIZ111"


Bennett was public about his gambling, but he was not public about its scale. As MSNBC showed, he apparently tried to hide it. Bennett seems to be Bush's equal in dissembling. A little poker with some judges, an occasional trip to Vegas, is quite different from, as MSNBC reported, having to wire more than, $1.4 million to cover losses at one casino. Scale matters.

More on Bennett and the truth
Bennett's lack of truthfulness regarding gambling is not an isolated failing. In fact, he has shown remarkable disregard for truth when he wants to make a point. For example, Bennett is a long time critic of homosexuals. On ABC's This Week Nov. 9, 1997, Bennett told his audience that homosexuality "takes 30 years off your life." He repeated his charge that November to the The Weekly Standard. This is not true. Slate explains why.


Bennett seems to have problems with statistics on more than gays. Basically, evidence that contradicts his argument that liberals are the source of all failings and cultural conservatives the source of all virtue seems to get treated a bit cavalierly. The second edition of Bennett's The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators plays fast and loose with inconvenient information about things getting better. Again, Slate offers the evidence.


Hypocrisy on a still bigger scale
Bennett gained fame for attacking violent themed rap songs. And certainly there is little, if any, good in many of these violent lyrics. But while Bennett was denouncing violence in rap he was appearing on the Bob Grant talk radio show, and even running ads there, helping to subsidize Grant's broadcasts. What does Grant say? How about, "I'd like to get every environmentalist, put 'em up against a wall and shoot 'em."

To his approval of violence, Grant adds enough vulgar racism to make Trent Lott blush:

The U.S., Grant said (1/6/92), has "millions of sub-humanoids, savages, who really would feel more at home careening along the sands of the Kalahari or the dry deserts of eastern Kenya -- people who, for whatever reason, have not become civilized.

"Haitian refugees are "swine" and "sub-human infiltrators" who multiply "like maggots on a hot day" (3/20/92). AIDS in Haiti, according to Grant (6/28/94), is "not prevalent enough; there's too many of them."


Grant was finally fired from WABC after saying, the day the plane carrying Clinton's Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, crashed, that Brown (who was black) might be the only survivor, `because I'm a pessimist'. Within a few weeks he was of course rehired on another station. For most people bigotry is a noxious vice. But it seems that for Bennett it can be a profit opportunity. (Helps to pay those gambling bills.)

When Bennett attacked trash TV he criticized an episode titled "Get Bigger Breasts or Else." But Rush Limbaugh, whom Bennett describes as "possibly our greatest living American" had the following to say on this subject: "Now I got something for you that's true - 1972, Tufts University, Boston. This is 24 years ago - or 22 years ago. Three year study of 5000 co-eds, and they used a benchmark if a bra size of 34C. They found that the now wait, it's true the larger the bra-size, the smaller the IQ."


As seems to be his way, Limbaugh also lied. There never was any such report.
Double standard? Hypocrisy? Check a dictionary.

Under President Clinton, the US attacked Serbian forces committing large scale genocide against Muslims in Kosovo. As a result of Clinton's actions, genocide ceased, with tens of thousands of lives saved, the brutal dictator who ruled Serbia was deposed, to be replaced by far more democratic rulers, and the potential of escalating war in Southeast Europe came to an end. Bennett's response to Clinton's actions was "I think this policy is nuts." (4/16/99)

When Americans opposed our attack on Iraq, and criticized Bush's false reasons for that attack, Mr. Virtue said "Well, you shouldn't listen to the protests because they're obviously helping Saddam Hussein. . . . It is worth noting, however, that Saddam was much encouraged by these protests."


Given this penchant to wrap himself in the flag, it is only fair to note that the author of Why We Fight himself has never worn the uniform of his country. We might wonder whether he is donating any royalties from that book to families of crippled, maimed, and killed soldiers. We rather doubt it. Like Grant's bigotry, other men's responsibilities in battle become profit opportunities for this beacon of Right wing Wisdom.

When you agree with Bennett in opposing government's foreign policy, you are a patriot. When you disagree with him, you are helping those who hate us. It is difficult for a person to be more full of himself than that. Humility is often considered a major virtue, and perhaps rather than lecturing on it, Bennett should begin practicing some. Along with honesty and walking his talk.

More on Bill Bennett:

American shadow

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