William Bennett’s Hypocrisy

“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” — Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld. “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” — Romans 7:22-23.

To the chagrin of some and the delight of others, Joshua Green recently revealed in the Washington Monthly that the compiler of The Book of Virtues, William Bennett, is a high-stakes gambler who has lost millions in casinos over the years. Since Bennett has spent much of the last decade stressing the importance of living up to ethical and moral responsibilities, this now conspicuous indulgence reeks of hypocrisy. Though Bennett spared us the specific moral condemnation of legal gambling and thus avoided direct insincerity, there can be no doubt that Bennett’s excessive gambling constituted hypocrisy. The very first virtue listed in The Book of Virtues, is “self-discipline.” Clearly, the extent of Bennett’s gambling fell far outside even generous boundaries of moderation. Moreover, Bennett is a director of the non-profit advocacy organization, Empower America. Empower America has argued against the extension of legal gambling.

However, some of Bennett’s critics, who have derived guilty pleasure at Bennett’s predicament, have revealed an obvious hypocrisy on their own part. Those who opposed Bennett in the past have argued that the private lives of public figures are not legitimate areas of inquiry lest a private problem spills into the public. However, we were not made aware of Bennett’s gambling problems because of illegal activity, a lawsuit, or a bankruptcy. They did not spill unbidden into the public. Bennett was outed by gleeful and zealous investigative reporting. The investigation of Bennett is reminiscent of the actions of those who believed that the best way to prevent Judge Robert Bork’s view of privacy rights from the Supreme Court was to acquire a list of Bork’s private video rentals hoping to find embarrassing titles.

Liberal columnist and television commentator Michael Kinsley argues that private issues become fair game when they reveal hypocrisy. Apparently, knowledge of the disconnect between private and public persona justifies private intrusion. It is unlikely that Kinsley would have subscribed to his own argument if someone had suggested that the contradiction between President Clinton’s private exploitation of women and his supposed support for the Liberal vision of women’s issues justified exposure of Clinton’s personal activities. By logical extension, Kinsley’s use of inconsistency dissolves the private in the solvent of human imperfection. Is it not true that we all publicly affirm ideals we aspire to but can never in reality completely achieve?

It is inevitable that those that demand the most from us are and ought to be judged by higher standards. Nonetheless, we must not confuse the message with the messenger. Intemperance by Bennett is not a refutation of temperance. The easiest way to steer clear of the flaw of hypocrisy is to affirm no values or standards against which one can be harshly judged. The more noble the aspirations, the more difficult it is to avoid hypocrisy.

One important measure of character and integrity is one’s response when confronted with a personal problem. Does one blame others for the fault or assume personal responsibility? Does one engage in denial or prevarication? Bennett has dealt with the charge of excessive gambling with a twinge of denial, not quite admitting to having a problem. Bennett at first excused his gambling by saying that he had not lost the “milk money.” However, having avoided bankruptcy is more a measure of the depth of Bennett’s resources then the shallowness of his problem. After greater consideration, Bennett has conceded that he has “done too much gambling” and promised that his “gambling days are over.” We hope for the sake of his family that he can keep his promise

Compare Bennett’s reactions to that of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s. Kennedy rants against the use of sports utility vehicles and high gas consumption by Americans, but considers inquiries as to what he drives and his use of private planes an invasion of privacy. While we ought not expect perfection from those in public, they must recognize that their persuasiveness, their moral authority, is proportional to the perception of their adherence to the values they profess.

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