Hypocrisy: Can William Bennett Still Defend Virtue?

Julie Ann Ponzi

May 1, 2003

It is a particularly disgusting habit of the human mind that propels it to dismiss virtue because of some perceived hypocrisy on the part of virtue’s defenders. What is worse is the childish delight some characters seem to take in the public unveiling of such hypocrisy. With his recent admission of a gambling problem, former Secretary of Education and Drug Czar, William Bennett, has provided every unthinking liberal wag the opportunity to indulge their greatest fantasy: the public whipping of virtue and her defenders (particularly conservative ones) as irrelevant, impossible and hypocritical.

Ignoring any sense of perspective, the spectacle has led some critics—still smarting from the conservative denunciation of Bill Clinton’s foibles—to proclaim that this is a case of six of one and a half dozen of another. On the other hand, conservative defenders of Bennett, in their rush to defend him, have argued that his vice is different not only in scale but in kind and that it is purely a matter "between him, his wife, and his accountant." Both go too far in their respective directions.

Bill Bennett is a public man who has defended virtue on a grand and public scale. By taking that responsibility upon himself he bears a special burden—the burden of teacher. Hypocrisy, of course, is always more culpable in the teacher than in the student because of the example he sets. Yet, Bennett’s personal defenders may have a point in saying that he is an enormously wealthy man who can afford his losses at casinos. I do not wish to engage this particular point on either side. Although our paths have crossed on occasion, I cannot say that I know Bill Bennett or that we are in any sense friends. So I have no interest in defending this particular man or his particular actions. Indeed, I believe compulsive gambling is not only a vice but a particularly unappealing and uninteresting one and, to borrow a phrase from dieting, I wouldn’t waste the calories on it. Indeed, I will go so far as to agree with his critics that his actions seem to belie his words and that is, indeed, the definition of hypocrisy.

I feel no sense of embarrassment, however, in my past wholehearted endorsement of many of Bill Bennett’s positions. Further, I will feel no shame in endorsing them in the future. For my part—while I am sorry for the torment this public unveiling of his vice will cause him and his family—I delight in the opportunity to unveil this annoying mental habit of Americans: namely, if the messenger is hypocritical, the message can be disregarded.

Bennett’s exposure is a very useful illustration of this most pathetic argument. This business of crying, "Hypocrisy" as if it were some kind of "GOTCHA" or intellectual trump card has got to be discredited in American public life. Of course Bill Bennett is a hypocrite. On some level, every decent man is a hypocrite. No man since Christ has achieved perfect virtue and there never has been such a nation. We need to remember this in our cries of "hypocrisy" lest our own hypocrisy outdo that of the one we denounce. The best any man or nation can do is to keep striving and own up to it when falling short.

Further, it is wrong to argue that hypocrisy is always dangerous. Sometimes it is the best thing a fallen mortal can offer. Would his gambling have been better if Bennett had not been a hypocrite and instead had argued that anything goes in the moral realm? That is what his critics want him to admit and that is what their heroes espouse. While it is true that our respect for a person is properly diminished in the face of moral weakness, it would be ridiculous to diminish our respect for virtue because of one man’s inability to live up to it in every way.

That is not to say that one would be wrong to balk at any future chastisement from Bill Bennett on the subject of gambling. If, on one of my dreaded trips to Vegas with the in-laws, he were to chastise me for losing my customary $20, I would surely laugh and tell him to tend to the plank in his own eye. Still, if I were to persist, and lose another $20 for no good reason and for lousy drinks, I would be wrong. He, despite his hypocrisy, would be right.

More dangerous than the occasional hypocrisy of Bennett and other conservatives is the consistency of liberals with their "live and let live" approach to human frailties. In the liberal world, a person who is not a hypocrite is not a perfect person rather, he is a person who does not judge. Striving to be "non-judgmental" and "tolerant" has replaced striving to be virtuous. To be more clear, a person who is not a hypocrite is a defender (if not an active one, then at least a passive one) of vice. This is how we get to public arguments about the meaning of the word, "is." After all, if virtue is vice and vice is virtue, who can be expected to know what "is" is.

A truly tolerant people would neither tolerate vice nor pretend that it does not exist. A truly tolerant people would recognize that vices are a part of the human condition and that the best a prudent soul can do is to avoid the big ones. Just as the prudent statesman realizes he cannot fight every battle, so a prudent man must realize that while he must try, he probably will not avoid all vice. Thus, he should carefully choose his vices. Above all, he should choose the vices he can control. A truly tolerant people should recognize this effort and be willing to accept his redemption when appropriate.

Should we excuse Bill Bennett’s vice? Clearly not. Should we be willing to forgive it when asked? Probably. That will depend on Bennett.

Julie Ann Ponzi is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and former professor of American Politics. She is now a stay-at-home mother.