Why Casinos Ratted Out Bennett

They think—mistakenly—that he’s a scourge against gamblers.

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.