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Bill bennett, gambling and finger pointing: off on a tangent

I'm not a fan of Bill Bennett. He strays too far to the right for me. He is a moralizer and a preacher; one of those people who thinks their morals should be your morals.

The pieces written for and against Bennett in the past week differ only in their pro and con stance on the issue. Otherwise they are filled with the same stuffing; the let he who is without sin flavor.

On one side you have a throng of smirkers pointing their fingers and laughing at Bennett, screaming in one collective, shrill voice about the man of virtue having less than stellar virtues.

On the other side you have a throng of halo-wearing puritans pointing their fingers at anti-Bennetts, screaming in one collective, shrill voice about the sinner making good on his sin and how that is a virtue in itself.

They are both right in their own ways and both so very, very wrong.

Gambling is not merely a sin. For something to be a sin, you have to subscribe to the religion that holds it as such. For some people, gambling is simply a vice. And for others, gambling is a disease, a home wrecker, a long trip off of a short pier* in which the person who drowns is usually someone other than the gambler.

See, it's not about the millions Bennett poured into the casino slot machines. Bennett is a man who preaches the sanctity of family. A person with a gambling problem cannot possibly practice that preachiness.

Gambling consumes time the way a twister can consume a town. Gambling is an acid that eats away at the very core of your family, destroying it from the inside out.

I know this first hand. I am well-schooled in the life of gambling. I lived it, learned it and was destroyed by it.

No, I was not the gambler. But that is my point. It is not always the gambler who is eaten away by their addiction.

I know how family comes last to the man who is on a mission for money. I know how that next win is always around the corner, how you feed the money back if you lose in an attempt to recover your losses and how you feed the money back if you win in an attempt to double or triple your winnings.

I know the mindset. How everything else becomes closed off to the gambler and they see only the spinning numbers or tumbling dice or point spread. I know about vigs and pushes and despair.

Bennett, a rich man by his own rights, may not have had to worry about his wife needing to cash in the kids' bonds so she can go grocery shopping. The monetary issue of his addiction would never be a problem. As for me, the money issue was clearly a worry. But it was the time that gambling took away from the family, the obession with winning that made all else insignificant, the growls and grunts that came after a loss that mattered most.

I don't know Bennett's wife. I don't know if she barely tolerated his problem or didn't care or wasn't at all affected by it. But I do know that a man who preaches family values should not be doing something that so destroys the fabric of a family, and on such a grand scale.

The fact that he spoke out about his own problem is all well and good. That does not, however, give him back his title of Virtuous Man. The followers of Bennett have made him out to be somewhat of a hero because he was able to come forward and admit his problems.

However, the fact that he was such a huge gambler does not really affect those who are deriding him. Sure, it was hypocrisy in action. Write about it and let it go. The only people Bennett needs to answer to are those in his family. We may never know the toll his addiction took on them. We, as outsiders, do not know if they fought over this, if tears were shed, if threats were made, if their nights were filled with worry and dread.

And on the tail of this whole story comes news that Mayor Bloomberg of New York is thinking about using gambling to recover some of the money the city's budget is lacking.

This is a disaster waiting to happen. Enticing people - most of whom do not have Bennett's deep pockets - to put their hard earned money into slot machines just reaching out to them at their local newsstand is a terrible, terrible idea. It will only make the poor poorer and the rich richer.

That's what gambling does. From dollar scratch-offs to $500 blackjack tables, gambling will suck not only your pockets dry, but will suck the life from you should it be in your grasp too often. We'd all do well not to point our fingers at people, lest those fingers be pointed back at us at some point. That goes for Mr. Bennett as well as those smirking his way right now.

*phrase edited from ass backwards version to correct version. Thank you, Alex.


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As little as I care for Bill Bennett (I wholeheartedly agree with you assessment of him, BTW), it's hard to stifle a wry smile when I consider his predicament. Lesson to be learned: he who live in gas tank should not throw stones.

Ah, I DO love it when self-righteous, moralizing asswipes fall off their pedestals.... ;0)


You've really nailed this one. These are the smartest comments on Bennett that I've read.

As for your comment on Bennett's wife: "I don't know Bennett's wife. I don't know if she barely tolerated his problem or didn't care or wasn't at all affected by it."

Somehow, I doubt that she wasn't at all affected by $8 million in losses.

I would imagine that between the time he spent on his gambling trips and the time he had to spend hustling his ass lecturing and writing in order to make the money he was gambling, he hardly had time for family life.

I find Bennett's alleged claim to have "broken even" over the long haul quite unbelievable. The odds against breaking even in that kind of gambling after placing so many thousands of bets must be astronomical. Assuming that there wasn't some sort of shady business going on, he seems to either be lying or in denial.

I'm not against gambling per se, but I prefer informal gambling. Vegas-style gambling is mostly just a way for people who can do Math to steal from people who can't -- smart people who assume they have a natural right to steal from dumb people.

This is the most straightforward piece I've seen on the subject so far. You've really cut to the heart of the issue.

There's no evidence at all that Bennett's gambling caused his family any hardship. He says it didn't and so does his wife. So how can you say it "must have"? Sometimes it's a good thing for men not to spend every second with their families, or at least their wives. Would you be as harsh if it were Bill Gates who was gambling, for whom the $8 million would truly have been pocket change? I think you're jumping to conclusions and imposing a standard on Bennett that you would find unjust imposed on yourself.

Oh, shit. Now you're not gonna want to talk to me anymore...

The only comments by Bennett's wife that I am aware of are in this USA Today story


And nowhere there does she state that the gambling did not cause her family any hardship. Yes, she says they are solvent, but that does not imply she supported him in his gambling. And it's on the record that she's the one who put a stop to it -- presumably because of the media fuss, but I would wager (good choice of words?) that she's not totally heartbroken that he's going to have to stop this habit.

And no, I don't think spouses need to spend every second together, but it's nice to check in every now and then.

While I can tell you that there are wives who would put up with their husbands taking 3-4 gambling trips a year and losing money (I don't buy the "break even" story either) I won't tell you there are wives who would like it.

gambling is legal in many aspects--and Bennett's gambling was of the legal form.

His family says his gambling didn't hurt them. His losses, while tremendous to the non-rich, place him in that high-roller category that Vegas caters to--ever see those Travel Channel specials about the luxurious rooms that you can't rent? Bennett is one among the many who can use those rooms.

I watched one of these people dump about $100,000 at a crap table in Bally's and walk away as if they'd blown a hundred on the slots.

Gambling can be a problem--but for the vast majority of people it's just an amusing--and sometimes rewarding pastime.

The other side of this, concerning Bennetts moralizing, it has been pointed out that Bennett, while more than willing to take on other vices, left gambling as a vice alone. While this clears him of a specific hypocracy, it does highlight the glaring facts that he felt his vices were find--while everyone elses' needed regulating.

In the end, he seems to have built his glass house so well that he forgot that it was there.

Personally, my opinion of Bill Bennett has not changed one bit. Whatever else he does, trying to impose one's own morality on others is unforgiveable, and the fact that he's made himself RICH reinforcing prejudice and stirring up hatred is unbelievably horrible. I've already maxed out on my ability to detest this guy.

Oh, btw, it's "a long walk off a short pier." _

Do you really think his wife would admit if it were hurting the family? We're talking about someone for whom divorce is absolutely no option -- a lot gets forgiven and not talked about there. I know that very well.

While I oppose making his values imposed by law on everyone, I don't have any problem with Bennett or anyone else trying to make their morals everyone else's morals. That's free speech and probably a good thing overall.

I actually like Bill Bennett. You don't have to be sinless in order to advocate morality. And so far, I haven't seen anything to indicate the size of his losses versus total assets; he may be richer than we think.


Bennett, more than any other public man, would be aware of the insidious costs of gambling to family and society, just as you describe them. In his public life he advocates moderation and moral self-discipline, but in his private life it appears that he has lacked both.

For an admirer of Mr Bennett, that is disappointing.

I too am disappointed with Bill Bennett. But, to my knowledge, the guy never said he was perfect. The arguments Bennett has made about virtue and public morality should stand or fall on their own, regardless of any revelations about the character of the man who made those arguments. What I find much more disturbing than Bennett's activities is the "gotcha" attitude of the people critcizing him. I don't think most of them would have been worried about Bennett's gambling if it hadn't been mixed with the much greater, indeed unforgivable sin of "hypocrisy." As Jonah Goldberg points out, liberals detest moralizers above all else, except when they're the ones doing the moralizing, which is pretty often.

I agree with Bob. I was a "fan" of Bill Bennet. I am apalled at his behavior.

I am a conservative Christian and think that all but the most trivial forms of gambling are sinful. I don't even play the lottery.

I know that many people, including many Christians, disagree with my opinion of gamblng, and it is their right to do so. It's not a clear-cut issue in the Bible.

And as Bob said, "But."

Bennett's gambling is entirely inconsistent with his message - EVEN IF he believes gambling is not sinful, addictive, or takes too much of his time. It sets a bad example for some people and makes him appear hypocritical.

1 Corinthians 10:23-32 is particularly relevant. All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable, and a man of God should go out of his way to avoid morally offending others, especially by giving up his "rights" to various forms of enjoyment.

A few points:

1. Where do we get the notion that Bennett's gambling took up a huge portion of time? The article I saw indicated that he went on a few trips per year. I don't see anything wrong with that.

2. A lot of people are skeptical of Bennett's claim that he came out "pretty close to even." These people do not know much about casino gambling. Bennet played high-stakes video poker. Those machines typically have and extremely high payout percentage (they are "lose"). It would not be surprising if the machines Bennett played had an average payout of 97-98% or so. Even if Bennett did only exactly well as random statistical chance would predict, he'd still only be down 2-3% of what he put in. In Bennett's case, this would still be a lot of money when judged against my income, but quite possibly not when judged against his. Add in the possibility that Bennett might have done a bit better than average (somebody has to), and it's entirely plausible that he came out "pretty close to even."

3. Finally, it's true that gambling destroys some lives. Leaving aside this ridiculous manufactured "scandal", it doesn't seem to have harmed Bennett or his family (or at least, that evidence has not come out yet). Alcohol destroys many lives. One (formerly?) popular definition of an alcoholic was someone who drinks every day. Now, my doctor suggests that I have one or two drinks every day. Is he suggesting that I become an alcoholic? No, because I do not have a problem with alcohol. I could probably, based on my body size, have 3 or 4 drinks just about every day with no ill effect. An alcoholic who tried to do that would be following a recipe for disaster.

Bottom line, I don't believe there's anything wrong with gambling. Bennett broke no laws, and from what we know, didn't harm anyone. He never told other people that he thought gambling was immoral. He never hid his gambling. In short, his conduct was not illegal, not immoral, not harmful, and not hypocritical. I guess some people hate Bennett enough that none of that matters.

I meant to say the machines are "loose", not "lose".

Freudian slip based on my last Vegas trip, I guess.


Well said.

Spoons: Of course neither your nor I know how much money Bennett lost at slots or video poker but the use of the 2-3% figure is misleading. That figure applies to the amount of money that is put into the machine, not to the amount of money a personbrings to the casino. Its quite easy and in fact probably to lose your entire stake playing a slot machine that takes only 2-3% because the gambler tends to keep playing the machine. The coins that tumble into the tray usually go right back into the slot. Another way of saying the same thing is that a player who shows up with $100 to play slot machines may end up putting $2000 of coinage through the machine( and would anticipate a loss of $60.)You probably knew this but I think your post left some room for confusion that may have misled someone else.

My problem with Bennett's actions is twofold:
1) Bennett acknowledges that while some people can gamble without incident as he does, others cannot. He advocates leaving gambling legal and states, "If you can't handle it, don't do it." Bennett was also this nation's Drug Czar for years and advocates that all drugs remain illegal. However, he must know that there is overwhelming evidence that some people can use drugs without incident. Why then, does he not take the same, "If you can't handle it, don't do it" stance on the vices of others?

2) Bennett claims to be a Christian, and he has advocated the virtues of charity, and yet he has piddled away millions of dollars. I find the waste of that amount of money, which could have been spent on education, food, shelter, and other necessities for people less fortunate than himself, quite frankly sickening. From a man who has made his fortune lecturing (and locking up) his fellow Americans for their lack of virtue, I find it maddening.

One, we don't know how much or how little mr. Bennet gives to charity. He might even tithe.. which would be far above what most people give to charity.

Two, he was comped at the casinos. Factor in what he would have paid to travel to some of these first class resorts over an unknown amount of years, and you probably can get close to what some people might spend on weekend getaways.

I might decide to go to someplace other than Vegas. But is paying money to go on a cruise, fly to Tahiti, climb Mt. Everest.. what not... is that money well spent?

The most favorable video poker machines have very small house percentages; in fact, a very few actually give the player a small edge (of course, that takes perfect play, which few players are capable of). A "full pay" Jacks or Better video poker machine has a house percentage of about .5%. Assuming that Bennett was able to find machines of this type at the $500/hand price he was apparently fond of, and further assuming that he played about six hands a minute (pretty normal for experienced players--some can play up to ten hands a minute), he'd be risking about $180,000 an hour. His expected loss assuming optimum play would be about $900/hr; obviously, there's a lot of volatility to those numbers (a royal flush on such a machine would pay $400,000--not exactly chump change).

My take on it is the same as Bob's and Amy's. One of the primary virtues is self-control, and Bennett showed too little of that. Eight million dollars is a sickening amount of money to spend for pure 'fun' (I would have forgiven a low five figures for someone in his income bracket, FWIW). His career as an advocate for morals is over.
I'm a Buddhist, but agreed with much of what he said. This is a bitter loss. Now, we're about to find out if he has the grace to bow out of public life.

The thing that too many people miss is that Bennett has never claimed to be morally perfect.

He has, in fact, on countless occassions said exactly the opposite. When he wants to talk about morality, he always takes it in the human context of how we all fail, but should try to do better.

What bugs me most about this controversy is the fact that too many people seem to have this view of Bennett as projecting an air of puritanism and intolerance, when I've rarely seen anything like that from him.

That's about all I can say on it. I said more on my own blog, but... well, to Michele's point:

I've known people who could gamble regularly and do no more damage to their families than anyone with a hobby they love. People who are very good and very disciplined can come close to breaking even. Many don't have the intelligence or control for it.

If his family says it hasn't been a problem, and the activity is legal, and he hasn't made a career out of denouncing gambling, well... I dunno. I guess I'm repeating what others say.

I just want to make the point again: if you really just sit and listen to this man speak, he always goes out of his way to emphasize that he's not morally perfect, no one can be, and to repudiate the notion of puritanism.

Ah well.

rule # 1 about a compulsive gambler is that they are lier