Gambling: Bennett: Virtue Is As Virtue Does?

In his best-selling anthology, "The Book of Virtues," William J. Bennett writes: "[We] need to set definite boundaries on our appetites." Does Bennett? The popular author, lecturer and GOP activist speaks out, often indignantly, about almost every moral issue except one--gambling. It's not hard to see why. According to casino documents, Bennett is a "preferred customer" in at least four venues in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, betting millions of dollars over the last decade. His games of choice: video poker and slot machines, some at $500 a pull.

More than 40 pages of internal casino documents provided to The Washington Monthly and NEWSWEEK paint a picture of a gambler given the high-roller treatment, including limos, comped hotel rooms and several $200,000 lines of credit. In one two-month period, the documents show him wiring more than $1.4 million to cover losses at one casino. And Bennett must have worried about news of his habit leaking out. Typed across one casino form are the words: no contact at res or biz!!!

Some of Bennett's losses have been substantial. According to one casino source, on July 12 of last year, Bennett lost $340,000 at Caesars in Atlantic City and on April 5 and 6 of 2003 he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Some casino estimates put his total losses over the past decade at more than $8 million. "There's a term in the trade for his kind of gambler," says a casino source who has witnessed Bennett at the high-limit slots in the wee hours. "We call them losers."

Reached by NEWSWEEK, Bennett acknowledged he gambles but not that he has ended up behind. "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even," Bennett says, though he wouldn't discuss any specific figures. "You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening and net out only a few thousand." A casino source, hearing of Bennett's claim to breaking even on slots over 10 years, just laughed.

"I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the law. I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything," Bennett says. The documents do not contradict those points.

"You don't see what I walk away with," Bennett says. "They [the casinos] don't want you to see it." Bennett, who makes about $50,000 per speech, says he plays slots and video poker for privacy. "I've been a machine person," he says. "When I go to the tables, people talk--and they want to talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax."

"We knew he went out there [to Las Vegas] sometimes, but at that level? Wow!" says one longtime associate.

Bennett says he has made no secret of his gambling. "I've gambled all my life and it's never been a moral issue with me. I liked church bingo when I was growing up." He adds that after a recent speech in Rochester, N.Y., he was asked whether he would run for president in 2008 and answered that he might enter the World Series of Poker instead.