Thursday, May 08, 2003

The chorus of shrill condemnation of William Bennett, in the wake of the revelation that he's a profligate gambler, has been remarkable for its personal vindictiveness. As Michael Kinsley put it, "gambling would not be our first-choice vice if we were designing this fantasy-come-true from scratch. But gambling will do. It will definitely do." Writes Matthew Yglesias: "Bennett's a bad guy and if the best way to bring him down is playing the hypocrite card I'm now convinced that he is, in fact, a hypocrite, so I guess the card should be played," The New Republic's "&c" agrees: "The real problem with Bennett is that, in Kinsley's words, he's 'smug, disdainful, intolerant.' And that's why he should be hounded out of public life."

Now, speaking as a sometime moralizer in my own right, it is of some concern to me that moralizers like Bennett arouse such animosity. To be honest, I've found the fellow more than a little grating myself, watching him on television--even though I agree with many of his views about personal responsibility and morality. I think that what makes his particular brand of Pecksniffian sanctimony so annoying, though, is not necessarily the set of beliefs that underlie it (although those would certainly anger anyone for whom, say, the "college consensus" is the last word on sexual morality). Rather, it's the smug ease with which he evokes his principles, as if they concerned maintaining good dental hygiene rather than resisting powerful temptations. "Being virtuous is easy", he seems to be saying, "look--I do it routinely, without even breaking a sweat". For the vast majority of the population--not including myself, of course--for whom resisting at least one vice is a daunting task, Bennett's casual (and apparently misplaced) confidence in his own righteous self-discipline is bound to irritate.

The comparison with another conservative Republican moralizer is striking. George W. Bush speaks openly about good and evil, doing right and doing wrong, and the guiding importance to him of his religious faith. He also has, to say the least, a somewhat checkered past with respect to certain vices. Yet while partisan opponents are keen to shred Bush for all sorts of shortcomings (including his religiosity), his record of alcohol-related problems rarely even comes up in political discussions, let alone being used as an excuse for contemptuous gloating about his "hypocrisy".

But then Bush never implied that (what he would no doubt claim to be) his current straight-arrow conduct is an easy matter for him. Although he doesn't discuss the subject much, it's clear from what he does say that he doesn't consider good behavior to be something that comes naturally to him. (I suppose it would look ridiculous for him to claim otherwise, under the circumstances.)

I suspect that that's precisely the message missing from Bennett's sermons: that the virtues of the past are not traits that we all suddenly lost a short time ago, after having taken them for granted for millenia, but rather, are ideals that most members of society once exerted themselves vigorously (and not always victoriously) to uphold, and now routinely neglect to do the difficult work of maintaining. If the recent public rebukes against William Bennett make more room for the George W. Bush approach, then--speaking as a moralizer--that may not be such a bad thing, after all.

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