Column: Is Bill Bennett A Hypocrite?

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Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia.

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The media game of "gotcha" seems to have moved its focus off of Bill Bennett and onto bigger (?) fish such as Martha Stewart and the New York Times editorial staff. Or perhaps the fact that the liberal press has now become so worthy a target there is press reluctance to heap condemnation on the weaknesses of this one particular conservative icon.

As a person with political leanings somewhat akin to those of Mr. Bennett's, I should perhaps just let it rest and be grateful that the "sins" of the critics have muted their criticism of my "hero."

But then my hero's "sin" has occurred on my academic turf (the gambling industry), and for the most part in my new hometown (be it ever so humble) Las Vegas. I feel an urgent desire to speak, although I am a bit lost of the feeling that my words will be adequate. I am hopeful that I can do this without either condemning the man or forgiving him. On the latter point, I am unsure about which man shall give the forgiveness, as I am unsure about just what action must be forgiven. As a beneficiary of the gaming taxes of Nevada (they do pay my salary--to a large extent), I am sure it is not I who has been sinned against.

I do wish to offer a viewpoint from Las Vegas to a world, which according to a front page story in Time Magazine (January 1994), was trying very hard to become like Las Vegas. It is a story about slot machines. Slot machines and Bill Bennett to be sure. I offer a history of gambling machines in my book Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society (ABC-Clio, 2001). The first patent for a gambling machine was given to Gustav Frederick Wilhem Schultz of San Francisco in 1893. His invention inspired (to the point of stimulating a major lawsuit) the efforts of Charles August Fey who to this day is credited with inventing the first modern style slot machine. His "Liberty Bell" machine had spinning reels with depictions of bells, hearts, diamonds, spades, and horseshoes. The patent courts sided with Fey and accepted the notion that a patent could not be given to Schultz as the legality of his gambling device was questionable. So too was the legality of Fey's device, so he was also denied a patent. Realizing that he had better not sell his machines, Fey instead "placed" the machines in various bars, taverns, and stores on a "revenue sharing" arrangement of the type still used between machine companies and grocery stores in Las Vegas and Reno. Unfortunately for Fey, someone in the Mill's Novelty Company of Chicago acquired a machine in 1905, and soon Mill's was making similar machines and selling them throughout the country.

Various subterfuges were used to dodge laws against gambling. Machines awarded merchandise instead of money prizes. The machines had signs saying they may not be used for gambling. The machines played music, and indicated that any coins coming out of them had to be reinserted so more music would play. The player could activate play on each reel, and therefore the machine owners could claim that play involved "skill" and not "luck." Some machines displayed exactly what combination would be displayed on the "next" coin, so that playing the machine--on that next coin--could not be considered gambling. Other machines gave a piece of gum with each play, so that the machines could be considered primarily gum dispensers.

Cat and mouse games with the law persisted through many decades, but when Nevada legalized casinos in 1931, major machine manufacturing could begin. In that year a company called Bally's developed a machine they called the "Ballyhoo." They sold the machines to both legal and illegal gambling venues. By the 1950s they dominated the gaming machine industry. In the 1960s and 1970s as they sold more and more machines, they developed electronic and then computerized machines.

As the 1970s ended Atlantic City casinos opened and Bally's had three quarters or more of the American gambling machine market. Enter Si Redd. Si was a Mississippi gambler who loved to tinker with machines. He rose in a career as an executive with Bally's. There he worked with colleagues and other inventors on the development of games which were played on a cathode ray tube--that is, a video screen. He was especially interested in a video poker game. The higher-up executives with Bally's knew their "bread and butter" was with the old reliable handle pull spinning reel machines. After all, what customer would dare to trust a computer--the customer wanted to see the actual reels spinning. Redd stood his ground, but so did Bally's and a parting of the ways was inevitable. As each party was fixed in their opinions, the parting was a mutually agreeable one. Redd could take his video game inventions and go his own way, as long as he promised that he would not try to make any "reel" machines that would compete with models from Bally's--for five years. Oh, Bally's threw in its crumb, they would not build any video machines for five years.

And that is how the Bally's empire came to fall, and that is how Si Redd and his new company International Gaming Technologies came to be a billion dollar operation. Video Poker "took off" as Atlantic City "took off." By the time the five years was over, I.G.T. dominated the market, and they had a big leg up in selling machines to new Native American casinos and riverboat casinos throughout the Middle West. In the 1980s casinos ceased relying heavily on table games, and machines overtook the tables in revenues. Now, even in Las Vegas, machines produce 60 percent or more of gambling revenues for casinos. In most other areas of the U.S. casinos receive as much as 80 percent of their revenue from machines.

The video poker machine is very popular because of its enticing qualities. Old slot machines might be played by "little ole ladies in tennis shoes" or by "non-gamblers" as they waited for their partners to play table games. Actually the machine players could be seen talking away with friends as they played two, three, four machines at a time. No more. With video poker games, the player became very serious. The video screen "talked" to the player. Well, sort of. The screen asked the player if he or she wished to hold a card, or have a new card. The player had to pay close attention to the screen. The player had time for one machine only, and the player did not have time for conversation with other people. An idle conversation would mess up one's concentration. Indeed, the player might mix up a diamond and a heart, a seven or an eight, and mess up chances for a straight or a flush. Video poker became serious business. And sad business too. The machines soon became the most addictive gambling device in the casinos.

One gambling counselor in Las Vegas found that 95 percent of the female compulsive gamblers he helped were addicted to video poker machines. In my own survey of 99 members of Gamblers Anonymous groups in Las Vegas, my colleagues and I found that over 70 percent were addicted to these machines. Prominent therapist Rob Hunter of Las Vegas is credited with calling the machines the "crack cocaine" of gambling. Psychiatrist Durand Jacobs of Loma Linda University works with gambling addicts. He finds that a majority of the ones who have video poker addictions have had the following symptoms while they played--out of body experiences, black-outs, and trance-like states, and that they have taken on the identity of other people.

Now consider Bennett. Here is a man who has achieved in every way what we consider admirable in our society. He is well educated--Ivy League degree, law degree, Ph.D, he has a solid intact family life, he has achieved both wealth and renown as an expert--whether or not you agree with him. He also is a believer and a strong church member who gives much time and money to charities and to persons less fortunate than he is. We would say that this man "has it together." YET. Look at what a video poker machine did to him! It could have destroyed him, it certainly has brought a degree of ruin to his reputation, and there is no doubt that it has brought hurt to many of his family, his friends, and those (like myself) who admire his views and his public persona.

Take this fact a step further. ASK. If a video poker machine can do this to a person who is "so together" what can it do to one who's life is troubled--to an unemployed person, a person on the edge of poverty, a person with a broken home, a lonely person, an elderly person who has lost a spouse, a person who is losing his or her health? The video poker machine can be devastating. In a sense I am glad that a number of rich people come to Las Vegas and lose a lot of money. I am saddened when I find casinos appealing not to rich tourists but to local residents who too often (unfortunately) fit the latter profile I present. These people with empty lives are especially vulnerable to gambling, and more so to the video poker machine.

The liberal voices condemning (criticizing) Bennett should direct some of their venom at their liberal political colleagues in Pennsylvania (Rendell), Wisconsin (Doyle), California (Davis), and others in Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, Washington, and Maine who are advocating introduction and expansion of video poker machines in their states. The case of Bennett should tell them that these machines are very dangerous, especially for "the little man." But then the International Gaming Technology company is part of the American Gaming Association which has a very large lobbying fund, and which gives politicians (many of the liberal stripe) very healthy campaign contributions.

Point One: Bennett's nemesis--the video poker machine--is a very dangerous commodity. Liberals should not encourage the spread of these machines.

Moving now to a second concern--the health of Mr. Bennett. A parallel or two. Ronald Reagan never won points for being a mental giant, whiz kid, quiz kid, or champion of Jeopardy. Ronald Reagan was regularly panned while president (by his liberal opponents) for his naps--including ones during cabinet meetings, and his gaps--of ready recall of information. Yet today in 2003, very few of his many critics would launch humorous jibes at his lack of energy or his failed memory. He instead merits sympathy. He is a victim of Alzheimer's disease. No laughing matter.

Now if it were revealed by a medical authority at a leading hospital that a champion spokesman of the Right--i.e. a William Bennett--was clinically diagnosed as being schizophrenic, or in common parlance, bi-polar, should such a diagnosis be greeted with personal condemnation and snide remarks engendering laughter, or perhaps with a degree of sympathy, with best wishes that he receive treatment and hopes that the treatment works? Would it become liberal voices to be laughing at mental illness?

I write not of hypotheticals. I write of facts. Liberals such as Mike Kinsley and Ellen Goodman heap scorn on a troubled gambler, almost with the laughter of glee that they have achieved another "gotcha." But none other than the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1980 after much study and discussion carried out over several years decreed that severe troubled gambling is a pathology, a mental illness, a "disease" of "impulse control." The Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals of the APA (editions III, IIIR, and IV) indicate several behavioral criteria for identifying the "disease." If a person displays several of the following he or she may be diagnosed as having this mental illness: preoccupation with gambling throughout waking hours, gambling larger amounts of money than intended, increasing bets to maintain a needed sense of arousal, irritability when not gambling, chasing losses by betting more and more, gambling when one must be at other places meeting obligations, mounting debts while gambling, engaging in illegal activities to gain gambling funds, hiding ones gambling activity, lying about gambling, and failing in efforts to stop gambling.

While Bennett certainly meets some of the criteria presented, we cannot know for sure if he has been diagnosed with the "disease," the mental illness. But it certainly appears if that was not the case, he was headed in that direction.

Both supporters and critics should be disturbed at this part of Mr. Bennett's life. We should not rejoice, albeit critics may have a quiet contentment that the voice of their adversary has been silenced, at least temporarily.

Maybe instead, we should seek to find understandings for why a person with such a complete life seemed to have such an empty spot in his life that he needed to fill it with addictive behavior. We should ask if perhaps we too are vulnerable.

Point Two: Liberals should be very careful about laughing at the mentally ill.

Ah, but then, maybe Bennett is only a "diseased" gambler in development. Perhaps his gambling at the stage of his exposure was not the result of a compulsion, a "disease," albeit it was excessive. After all, it appears that he did not reach the point of financial ruin, he is putting the food on the family table, he is paying (as far as we know) his debts, and he is (was) meeting his job obligations. Is he then ripe for criticism? I would think he is to a degree. We certainly can say--barring mental illness--that he foolishly squandered his money, that he engaged in frivolous activity reflecting poor financial judgment. If his judgment was so poor in this area, perhaps we can use that as a motivation to criticize his judgment in matters political, in matters of moral arguments.

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The most used word for Mr. Bennett's plight, a word repeated over and over as I ask others for their opinion is : "HYPOCRITE."

Does he qualify--in a religious sense, in the sense that he wrote (and collected essays) for a book called, The Book of Virtues? I refuse to call another a hypocrite, as I do have to look at myself in the mirror each day (or I choose to do so, at least when I am using a razor blade to shave). And while I must hesitate to condemn others for offering their criticism, perhaps I can analyze that particular criticism.

Webster's Dictionary (9th New Collegiate Edition) defines "hypocrite" as "one who affects virtues or qualities he does not have." "Hypocrisy" is defined as "a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not...the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion." A starting point for analysis.

First let us look at gambling and religion. I have devoted a major section to this topic in my Gambling in America. There I present views of various faiths toward gambling. Many--Baptists, Methodists--take a "deontological" view of gambling. namely they find it to always be wrong, always like in every circumstance. They find Biblical scripture that will support the notion that gambling represents covetness, stealing, and a mockery of the lessons of God and the Son.

Mr. Bennett is not a member of such faiths. He is a Catholic. While there is no universal view of gambling in Roman Catholic theology, a consensus view is that it is wrong but may be tolerated in some circumstances. This worldly or "teleological" (end result) view would hold that gambling activity should be condemned BUT. If the gambling game is honest, if the players are not cheating, if the players can afford their wagers, and if the players are meeting all of their social (church, family, society) obligations, and they are playing not habitually but rather recreationally, and if the bottomline result of the play helps society THEN gambling may be tolerated. In this scheme of things, Bennett may fail only in regard to the habitual nature of his play. We certainly should recognize that the games he played were honest and legal, and that the taxes from this rich man's gambling do provide for government services for less wealthy people, and that the profits taken by the casinos do employ many persons less fortunate than Mr. Bennett. Mr. Bennett also has been a major charitable contributor, he gives heartily to his church and other good causes, he takes care of his family, and he pays his taxes. He maintained that he only played occasionally. This may not be true. Certainly we could suggest that he had some playing binges that went beyond recreation. But if he was not under the "impulse control" illness mentioned above, it was an activity that might not have been too far beyond recreation. Many controlled gamblers have played for the lengths of time he played.

A religious hypocrite he seems not to be.

A hypocrite because he wrote The Book of Virtues? We must ask just what was in this book of "virtues." Many of his critics agreed that he had not personally criticized gambling activity, but they like to throw a "McCarthy" type guilt by association on him because others of the "Right" do oppose gambling. Like all conservatives must be of one mind. That doesn't justify any need for response.

But what was in "his" book. Ellen Goodman (Boston Globe, May 11, 2003) and others have pointed out the absence of "gambling" in his book. "Did you think it was odd that Bennett's Book of Virtues didn't mention gambling?" The implication was that he was meticulous to mention "his" sin in a book covering a litany of sins of others.

This is simply a very inaccurate reading of his book. He DID mention gambling--loud and clear, as well as soft and subtly. On the soft side he talked of investing and gathering. He distinguished between idleness which is unearned and "leisure" that is earned recreation. In Las Vegas we like to call gambling a "leisure" activity. He included Ecclesiastes--you know, the passage Kennedy used in his inaugural address--"...and there is a time for losing." Good enough for JFK. But the one piece that is "right on the money" is the poem from Rudyard Kipling. Bennett included "If." The lines flowed, "If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss.....If you can fill the unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds worth of distance run--Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!"

The liberal ladies may beg my forgiveness, but the point is that the vigorous mature soul can play the game, lose quietly (as Bennett was quite content to do), and go on with life. Bennett put the poem in his chapter on courage. Life goes on, and who best to be able to use human fortitude to advance whatever the loss or obstacle--but the gambler. Ergo, the gambler is not a person to be scorned and pitied and disdained, but rather a person deserving admiration--a "man" of courage. That he may have lied and shirked some personal responsibilities makes him vulnerable to critics, but then the full force of his book of virtues does not render him among all men to be particularly vulnerable to being labeled "hypocrite."

Point Three: Bill Bennett's religious beliefs and his philosophy of morality leaves room for gambling activity. He is not a hypocrite simply because he engaged in gambling--even if he did so with some degree of excess.

I don't admire Bill Bennett's affliction, be it one of mere excess or one of a disease of "impulse control." I feel a goodness for him that he was exposed before his excess or affliction brought him down completely. He will have to work hard to recover from his troubled gambling. Only a minority of members of Gambler's Anonymous groups can "stay clean," and the only sure cure to troubled gambling like alcoholism is total abstinence.

But in the meantime I must confess that I do admire the accomplishments of the man, and I find his Book of Virtues to be a wonderful collection of wisdom. I am reminded of the homily, "The efficacy of the sacraments is not to be compromised due to my inadequacies as a priest." His message on morality is no less viable due to the fact that he has human frailties, or perhaps that he like all of us is subject to the forces of human disease.

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Josh Greenland - 7/26/2003

"While I am critical of Bennett's politics, it is an entirely different matter to criticise his personal life, and quite hypocritical to confuse the two."

Bennett criticizes other people's private lives, sometimes in really mean-spirited ways. He has no right to be immune to what he does to others.

Josh Greenland - 7/26/2003

I don't know everything that "liberals" are supposed to be saying about Bill Bennett, and I won't take Bill Thompson's word that they are all calling him a hypocrite.

I have Bennett's Book of Virtues and don't see anything wrong with it (though I haven't yet read it all yet). It seems like the kind of thing that was written as non-sectarian moral instruction for children before 1940, dating back to before the 20th century. I don't have a problem with this, since so many young people seem to be growing up nowadays with a stunted moral code. However, the book is bulky enough that it looks intimidatingly like a tome and probably won't be read by most young people.

Bill Bennett is indeed Catholic religious right, so he isn't violating his own religious beliefs by gambling, and he may or may not be contradicting what he's written in his Virtue books. The problem is that he's been trying to lay his beliefs on others, and has justifiably earned the ire of many liberals, libertarians and libertines and gay people. And they can point to his alliance with those people and groups on the Protestant religious right that are anti-gambling and by trumpeting his gambling problem, can put the heat on him. His allies are particularly intolerant people and if there is too much publicity on this, it may make it hard for him to work with them (or sell books and lecturers to them). The folks who don't like him know this and are acting accordingly.

Sure, he may have a problem, but it's hard for most of us to feel sympathy for someone who can afford to play $500 slots for hours and lose $300K+ over a long weekend, especially if we don't respect how he made that money originally, being a professional moralizer who opposes the way that large parts of the population live.

I think he deserves the flack he's getting, not because there's anything so evil about his gambling, but because he is a public figure whose made a lucrative career of attacking other people's lives. Too bad if Bill Thompson agrees with most or all of Bennett's bigotries, because Bennett deserves what he's getting now.

Don Williams - 7/26/2003

In the cited news article above, Bennett now admits to losing a lot of money. But he sung a different tune when Washington Monthly first asked him about his gambling back in May. From
Bennett--who gambled throughout Clinton's impeachment--has continued this pattern in subsequent years. On July 12 of last year, for instance, Bennett lost $340,000 at Caesar's Boardwalk Regency in Atlantic City. And just three weeks ago, on March 29 and 30*, he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. "There's a term in the trade for this kind of gambler," says a casino source who has witnessed Bennett at the high-limit slots in the wee hours. "We call them losers."

Asked by Newsweek columnist and Washington Monthly contributing editor Jonathan Alter to comment on the reports, Bennett admitted that he gambles but not that he has ended up behind. "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." The documents offer no reason to contradict Bennett on these points. Bennett claims he's beaten the odds: "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even."

"You can roll up and down a lot in one day, as we have on many occasions," Bennett explains. "You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening and net out only a few thousand."

"I've made a lot of money [in book sales, speaking fees and other business ventures] and I've won a lot of money," adds Bennett. "When I win, I usually give at least a chunk of it away [to charity]. I report everything to the IRS."

But the documents show only a few occasions when he turns in chips worth $30,000 or $40,000 at the end of an evening. Most of the time, he draws down his line of credit, often substantially. A casino source, hearing of Bennett's claim to breaking even on slots over 10 years, just laughed.

"You don't see what I walk away with," Bennett says. "They [casinos] don't want you to see it."

Any gambler knows that the Casinos are set up to give an edge to the House -- and that edge makes it certain that one will lose
heavily if gambling is prolonged (over an hour).

If you bet big, you will lose even bigger. They don't build those huge glittering casinos by losing money.

What people often don't realize is that the house edge applies to
the total amount gambled,not the size of the bet. Take the $500 slots that Bennett reportedly played. Assume they were set up with a generous payout of 98% (i.e., return 98% of the amount gambled, on average, back to the players and house keeps only 2%.
--note that Nevada law allows casinos to set slot machines so as to keep up to 25% of amount gambled but competitive pressure usually ensures casinos are more generous.)

The problem for Bennett is that the pace of slots is rapid -- up to 12 spins per minute or 720 spins per hour. At that rate, one has bet a total of 720 x $500 or $360,000 over the hour and the casino will earn 2% x $360,000 or $7200. Over three hours , the player will lose $21,600.

A player might earn a profit if he hits somes wins at the start of play and then immediately quits with his earnings. But if he plays for a hour or more, the house edge will inexorably eat up his stake.

Stephen Kriz - 7/26/2003

Here's the latest from Billy Boy himself:

Reminds me of Nixon's line, "I'm not a crook".

Bennett: "I'm not a hypocrite" - Yeah, right, Bill........

Stephen Kriz - 7/25/2003

A picture is worth a thousand words, and this cartoonist pretty much nails Bill Bennett in these few panels:

Kenneth Gregg - 7/23/2003

I have a good appreciation of Bill Thompson's well-balanced view of Bill Bennett. His scholarship, as always, is clear and to the point. More often than not, it is far too easy to criticise a public figure by ignoring the fundamentals, such as their core religious/philosophical stances, or the context of their lives and writings. What Thompson has done is far superior to the other critics (and Thompson was making some criticisms) have done with the public "outing" of Bennett's gambling.
While I am critical of Bennett's politics, it is an entirely different matter to criticise his personal life, and quite hypocritical to confuse the two. Bennett, regardless of what I or anyone else may say of his politics, has led a thoughtful and successful life.
Christians would point out that they may not be perfect, just forgiven. The rest of us would learn from this.
Congratulations to Bill Thompson!
Kenneth Gregg

Wilson - 7/22/2003

I hate to kick someone when they're down, but Bill Bennett also weighs about 300 lbs. I remember reading a typically hectoring piece of his in which he damned the Clintons and liberals for indulging in several of 'the seven deadly sins.' All I could think was, "Does he now know gluttony is one of them? Has no one ever told him that?"

Stephen Kriz - 7/22/2003


HC Carey - 7/22/2003

Now he has to lie in it. Bennett set himself up as the nation's moral guargian and consistently lectured Americans on their failures. That he was a compulsive gambler who lied to his family to conceal the extent of his losses and then justified his gambling on the grounds that "no one was hurt" (precisely the argument used to justify marijjuana use!) does not change the utility, value or strategic usefulness of the morals he espoused. It just, quite rightly, knocks him on his ass as a spokesman and deprives him of the right to lecture other people about their shortcomings

Josh Greenland - 7/22/2003

Bill Thompson puts together a defense of conservative Bill Bennett against charges of hypocrisy. It's hard to have much faith in Thompson's mental illness argument, however, when he starts off with this statement: "Now if it were revealed by a medical authority at a leading hospital that a champion spokesman of the Right--i.e. a William Bennett--was clinically diagnosed as being schizophrenic, or in common parlance, bi-polar,...."

Schizophrenia is a thought disorder, and has nothing to do with the mood disorder known formally as bi-polar disorder. Common parlance for the latter is manic-depression.