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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of June 4 - 10, 2003

Opinion Columns

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 lottery.

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 giggle.

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.



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