William Bennett Takes a Dive

The values dome’s strange reticence about Arnold’s sins.

Where is William Bennett when you need him? In late July, the values guru mumbled a semi-confession about his gambling compulsion for a taped appearance on Tim Russert’s CNBC show. “I don’t have an addiction,” Bennett insisted. He wouldn’t say how much he lost. But he did admit that “I way overdid it” and pledged to “call it quits. … No more casinos.” Since the program aired, Bennett has not seemed quite the scourge of old.

Perhaps Bennett has been coming to terms with (and breaking) his gambling habit. If so, Chatterbox wishes him Godspeed. But revelations of moral turpitude, like Old Man River, just keep rolling along, indifferent to whether or not America’s best-known moralist returns the phone calls of cable news bookers. During Bennett’s period of circumspection, we learned about the sins of two prominent conservatives, Rush Limbaugh and Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s still time for Bennett to weigh in on Limbaugh (all he’s said so far is that he didn’t know about Limbaugh’s pill addiction), so let’s focus on Schwarzenegger.

In the run-up to the California recall election, we learned that Arnold had confessed (falsely, Schwarzenegger now says) to participating in a gang-bang; had confessed to using “grass and hash”; had palled around (as recently as 1998, according to the New York Post) with a Nazi war criminal; and had groped women in a professional setting, a charge to which Schwarzenegger basically pleaded guilty (“wherever there is smoke, there is fire”). But Bennett, who once wrote that Bill Clinton’s “moral bankruptcy” was “damaging our country, its standards, and our self-respect,” had little to say on the matter, even though he was supporting Schwarzenegger’s Republican opponent, Tom McClintock.

On Sept. 2, the former scourge of Dogpatch weighed in on Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes:

Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future. … I think a man big enough to run for an office like that is big enough to have the truth told about him. But I don’t think it’s relevant, and I don’t think it bears particularly on the merits now. And I think the three of us would probably agree there’s way too much of this in politics. … Look, you take a man in the totality of his actions, and that’s the way it should be viewed. And if you look at everything, look at the record of the man as an adult, as a father, as a husband, and as a professional. And I think it comes out pretty well.

On Sept. 29, Bennett repeated the “every sinner has a future” line on Scarborough Country, this time adding, “[W]e believe in growth and redemption.” He continued:

And better as a young man than as an older man, not good at any time, some of those things. But given the context in which he lived, he seems to have outgrown all that kid stuff. I have been with him in a situation with his wife and his family. And we have had a couple of dinners together. He’s an impressive father and husband. And it is how men grow up, I think, in the end that matters, don’t you? That’s what women’s wish is, is that we will, in the end, all grow up.

Bennett  was only slightly less avuncular (“These are not encouraging stories. … [H]e needs to address them a little more fully”) when the Los Angeles Times dropped the sexual harassment story  a few days before the election. * Had Bennett’s own period of public humiliation caused him to become more tolerant and forgiving? That hypothesis disintegrated after Schwarzenegger’s victory, when Bennett made the following pronouncement (to Miles Benson of Newhouse News Service):

Outrage was killed in 1998. The public, having turned its face away from President Clinton’s outrages, was not likely to turn its face toward outrage when the two plausible options seemed to be the embrace of a radically less-than-perfect actor-cum-politician or the continued demise of the state of California.

In the postelection climate, Bennett apparently felt freer to render the slightly more harsh judgment that Schwarzenegger was “radically less-than-perfect,” a phrase that allowed Bennett to maintain a toehold on the values franchise without causing the governor-elect any real offense. But the real item of interest was Bennett’s gratuitous swat at Clinton. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s radical lack of perfection had to be Clinton’s fault! There was only one conclusion to draw. Bennett was not making allowances for human weakness when he shut his trap about Schwarzenegger. He was showing discipline and staying on message. He was taking a dive.

Correction, Oct. 15, 2003: An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that Bennett “held his tongue” about the Los Angeles Times story. (Return to the corrected sentence.)