Virtue Is As Virtue Does?

  In his best-selling anthology, "The Book of Virtues," William J. Bennett writes: "[We] need to set definite boundaries on our appetites." Does Bennett? The popular author, lecturer and GOP activist speaks out, often indignantly, about almost every moral issue except one--gambling. It's not hard to see why. According to casino documents, Bennett is a "preferred customer" in at least four venues in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, betting millions of dollars over the last decade. His games of choice: video poker and slot machines, some at $500 a pull.
  More than 40 pages of internal casino documents provided to The Washington Monthly and NEWSWEEK paint a picture of a gambler given the high-roller treatment, including limos, comped hotel rooms and several $200,000 lines of credit. In one two-month period, the documents show him wiring more than $1.4 million to cover losses at one casino. And Bennett must have worried about news of his habit leaking out. Typed across one casino form are the words: no contact at res or biz!!!
  Some of Bennett's losses have been substantial. According to one casino source, on July 12 of last year, Bennett lost $340,000 at Caesars in Atlantic City and on April 5 and 6 of 2003 he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Some casino estimates put his total losses over the past decade at more than $8 million. "There's a term in the trade for his kind of gambler," says a casino source who has witnessed Bennett at the high-limit slots in the wee hours. "We call them losers."
  Reached by NEWSWEEK, Bennett acknowledged he gambles but not that he has ended up behind. "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even," Bennett says, though he wouldn't discuss any specific figures. "You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening and net out only a few thousand." A casino source, hearing of Bennett's claim to breaking even on slots over 10 years, just laughed.
  "I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the law. I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything," Bennett says. The documents do not contradict those points.
  "You don't see what I walk away with," Bennett says. "They [the casinos] don't want you to see it." Bennett, who makes about $50,000 per speech, says he plays slots and video poker for privacy. "I've been a machine person," he says. "When I go to the tables, people talk--and they want to talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax."
  "We knew he went out there [to Las Vegas] sometimes, but at that level? Wow!" says one longtime associate.
  Bennett says he has made no secret of his gambling. "I've gambled all my life and it's never been a moral issue with me. I liked church bingo when I was growing up." He adds that after a recent speech in Rochester, N.Y., he was asked whether he would run for president in 2008 and answered that he might enter the World Series of Poker instead.
Why Casinos Ratted Out Bennett
They think—mistakenly—that he's a scourge against gamblers.
By Timothy Noah May 5, 2003
  Chatterbox will let others hash out the moral justification, or lack thereof, for invading William Bennett's privacy by making public the astonishing amount of money he's lost at casino gambling. (Even if Bennett is right that a full reckoning would put him roughly even, the millions he put at risk clearly show that he's a problem gambler.) As a working journalist, Chatterbox is more interested in how the Washington Monthly and Newsweek managed to get their hands on "more than 40 pages of internal casino documents" detailing Bennett's wins and losses. This isn't stuff you can get by filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act, or by schmoozing Bennett's enemies. The Internal Revenue Service might possess some of the information revealed in the articles, but it's doubtful it has all of it; and anyway, the IRS pretty much never leaks information from individual tax returns. (An IRS employee could be jailed for doing so.) A member of Bennett's family might conceivably have leaked the information as some sort of rococo Beltway notion of an intervention. The embarrassing publicity did, in the end, force Bennett to swear off gambling in the future. But a May 4 USA Today interview in which Elayne Bennett denies that her husband is a gambling addict who has lost millions of dollars left Chatterbox with the strong suspicion that Bennett told his wife considerably less about his habit than what was documented by the Monthly and Newsweek. The Monthly story notes that Bennett's customer profile listed not his home address, but rather, the Web address for the Washington think tank Bennett co-chairs. Bennett apparently preferred that casinos contact him at his place of business, which afforded limited privacy, rather than at home, which afforded maximum privacy from everyone save his wife and kids.
  If the IRS didn't supply Newsweek and the Monthly with the 40-plus pages of casino documents, and Bennett's family didn't, either, the only other logical source would be the casinos. Chatterbox phoned the Washington Monthly's Joshua Green, the principal reporter on both pieces, to confirm this hypothesis. (Conflict-of-interest interlude: Chatterbox is a former editor at the Monthly, a former reporter at Newsweek, and a friend of both Green and his Newsweek co-author, Jonathan Alter.) Green would not, of course, reveal any names, but he did acknowledge that casino employees in Atlantic City and/or Las Vegas provided information. "There were multiple sources," he said, "at multiple casinos."
  Green and Alter suggest that Bennett's gambling losses exceed $8 million. You'd think casinos would consider a sap like that an ideal customer. Even if they were indifferent, you'd think casino employees would decline to dish about the wins and losses of any customer, especially a famous one. Such disclosure is strictly against house rules that casino owners are rumored to enforce through extralegal violent means. Apparently, though, Bennett is heartily disliked at these palaces of sin, and that tipped the balance. "What rankled a lot of people in Atlantic City and Las Vegas was that Bennett's organization, Empower America, opposes the expansion of casino gambling," Green says. Bennett's enemies in the casino were angered by "what they considered to be the hypocrisy between the public stance of his organization and his private gambling."
  If they think that, they have it wrong. Four "bullet" paragraphs in Empower America's Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (consisting of statistical information rather than argument) cannot reasonably be said to weigh heavily in the national debate. More plausibly, the Monthly, Newsweek, and Slate's own Michael Kinsley offer the opposite rationale for exposing Bennett. They argue that Bennett, far from being a scourge of gambling, personally exempts gamblers from his lengthy list of moral lepers, and that he does so because he is one. The casino leakers impute far more importance to one despised nuance in Empower America's agenda than it warrants. At the same time, they impute far less to importance to Bennett's TV sermonizing—where gambling doesn't figure—than that warrants. Chatterbox won't attempt to discover the casino leakers' identities, as he has often tried to do with Deep Throat, because doing so might shorten their lives. He wishes them good health and greater political acuity in the future.