Looking for virtue in unlikely places
Commentary by Betty Bell
Weíll let Mr. Bennett shed his
resolution if he promises to come to Idaho and gamble a few million bucks on our
Weeks ago, after we learned of his loss of
an astonishing $8 million in Las Vegas slot machines, William J. Bennett, the
head of the Department of Virtue, had an epiphany. "I have done too much
gambling," he said, "and this is not an example I wish to set. Therefore, my
gambling days are over,"
Good for WJB. I believe thatís heís
serious, but I canít help wonderingówould he quit gambling if we hadnít found
out about it? And I wonder if $8 million is the whole story or if there are
stunning surprises yet to come. My, such wretched thoughts for a Christian to
harbor. Worse, when I should be saying prayers for his success, instead I
Feeding $8 million into flashing, whirring
slot machines doesnít prove addiction. It could indicate that gambling is a
compelling hobby, or perhaps a too serious pastime, or maybe even a beloved
avocation. But we all know that hobbies and pastimes and avocations are the very
traits so hard to change.
My keen interest in WJBís business, which
hasnít diminished, might seem a bit unsavory. I donít expect kudos, but cut me a
little slack hereóthereís a plus side in the marked improvement of my attention
span. For instance, I keep getting images of his gigantic right arm. If you lost
just $1 million pulling the lever on a slot machine, wouldnít your right arm get
so big itíd make Lleyton Hewittís meal-ticket arm look scrawnier than Orphan
Annieís? And no, I didnít assume that WJB is right handed--itís a given. WJB
couldnít tolerate being "left" about anything.
As a young and serious Catholic girl, Iíd
always try to give up candy for Lent, but I canít brag about my record. And Iíve
tallied years and years of New Yearís resolutions made and readily broken, so
itís my own sorry record that makes me curious about WJBís big-time resolution.
I do wish him better luck than Iíve had,
and I wholly agree with him that gamblingís not a sin. But Iím not sure that
breaking resolutions doesnít get into a fuzzy gray area. In all those Saturday
afternoons of going to Confession and owning up to resolution failures, Father
never once said forget itóhe gave me a penance of 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail
Marys every time.
Maybe if youíre in the business of
marketing virtue you get a strength that those of us who just read about it
canít muster. Still, I bet itís hard, hard, hard. I wonder if Ms. WJBís has such
unflagging faith in Mr. WJB that she doesnít wish even for a minute that she
could slip one of those bracelets around his ankle thatíd tattletale the instant
his foot crossed the threshold of a slot machine establishment.
Iíve been so caught up in this epic story
of fall from grace that I went to the library specifically to look at WJBís "The
Book of Virtues," a book that never tempted me before. I found that Mr. Bennett
is a master at getting great mileage out of a book. First, thereís an adult
version, and then thereís the "little-biddy" word version (as our president
would say) for children. And "The Book of Virtues" isnít actually written, as in
creative writing 101óitís a collection of verses and stories and poems and
essays from the Bible and through the Grimm Brothers times up to and including
contemporary virtuous examples about and by past presidents. President Clinton
didnít make itóinstead he got his own book, "The Death of Outrage." But it
probably wonít come out in a little-biddy word version.
In fifth grade, Sister Mary Fidelis, our
scary Baltimore Catechism teacher, permanently etched our malleable minds with
the admonition that God sees virtue in every man. Itís too bad WJB didnít serve
a year under Sister Mary Fidelis--heíd have felt compelled to come up with at
least one good thing to say about William Jefferson Clinton.
In the days before Internet and cell
phones, my entrepreneurial husband, Ned, and his best friend and partner,
Jack--rest their souls--operated a football parlay gambling syndicate. They
worked as hard as any math specialists to get the odds figured by Thursdays, and
then they hustled all over town and put their cards everyplace except in church.
Itís not an exaggeration to say that after a few seasons of playing football
parlay cards, the Wood River Valley had a passel of seriously dedicated
gamblers, and what saved us was that Ned and Jack heard a rumor that two FBI
agents had checked into the Sun Valley Lodge solely to find evidence of illegal
pursuits. Well, the syndicate dissolved faster than sugar in hot water, and Ned
and Jack and all the rest of us quit gambling cold-turkey with nary a relapse.
The only objectionable thing I see about
WJBís gambling is the glaringly uncaring way he lost that 8 million bucks. In
Las Vegas casinos, for Heavenís sake! And here we are in poor little old Idaho
with millions of dollars of budget shortfall. But the thing is, we also have a
lottery--the poor manís tax, even though thatís not the way itís promoted.
Lottery gambling is virtuous, weíre pressed to believe, since the state gets
some of the money it rakes in.
So thereís a win-win solution here. Weíll
let Mr. Bennett shed his resolution if he promises to come to Idaho and gamble a
few million bucks on our lottery. The odds that heíll win are slim here, too,
and for sure it wonít be as much fun--no free rooms, dinners and lemonadeóbut at
least his self-esteem can soar right back up to its pre-revelation level. For
"Yea, verily," it is written, "Virtuous is the rich man who gives generously to
the poor manís tax.
Weíll welcome you to Idaho, Mr. Bennett.