Guy W. Farmer

The recent uproar over self-appointed Morality Czar William Bennett and his gambling habit reminded me of the days when Nevada was often trashed as “the only state in the nation with legalized gambling.”

An army of hypocrites bombarded us with that canard on a daily basis during the 1960s. When it came to legal gambling, we were always the bad guys. But not any more.

Everyone is in the gambling business these days. Among others, California Indian tribes and Gov. Gray Davis can’t get enough of it. Apparently, Davis sees Indian gaming as the miracle cure for his state’s huge budget deficit, thereby heading off a serious recall movement by angry opponents.

In the 1960s, however, another California governor, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (Governor Moonbeam’s father), liked to criticize Nevada’s “wicked” gambling industry even as he visited South Lake Tahoe casinos on weekends. And in those days, six or seven states, including California, were earning more money from legal gambling than was Nevada.

The media flap over Bennett’s high-stakes gambling is a 21st century version of an old morality play. It began last month when several liberal journalists pounced on the conservative author of “The Book of Virtues” after it was revealed that he had poured millions of dollars into video poker machines in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

“It is, of course, the size of his alleged gambling losses that has us clucking our tongues over William J. Bennett’s recent public embarrassment,” wrote William Raspberry of the Washington Post. “The fact that he writes and speaks on virtue — that he has become a highly remunerated public scold on the subject — is just added seasoning.”

Predictably, Cory Farley of the Reno Gazette-Journal reveled in Bennett’s “downfall” and called him “a boil on the butt of society.” Clever! But at the same time, Farley thanked Bennett for his contributions to Nevada’s struggling economy. “I’m glad he’s keeping my taxes down,” the columnist wrote. “I wish there were more like him: conservative, bombastic, narrow, lighting their own fuses.” Somehow, I get the idea that Cory doesn’t like conservatives.

In truth, however, Bennett is just a right-wing clone of the far left’s own holier-than-thou “public scold,” Bill Moyers of PBS, who frequently interviews recipients of grants from a liberal foundation that he runs — an obvious conflict of interest that Moyers chooses to ignore.

Nationally syndicated gaming columnist Mark Pilarski echoed Farley when he noted that Bennett’s gambling habit will benefit the state of Nevada and the IRS. “All casino wins are taxable,” wrote Pilarski. “Also, gambling losses can be used only to counterbalance gambling winnings during the same tax period.”

The good news is that Bennett’s losses become casino gross winnings, which are taxed by the state. So we should thank the Morality Czar for helping Gov. Guinn and the Legislature to balance the budget.

For his part, Bennett was candid about his compulsive gambling. “It is true that I have gambled large sums of money,” he said in a statement. “I have also complied with all laws on reporting wins and losses.” And furthermore, “When I win, I usually give at least a chunk of it away (to charity). I report everything to the IRS.”

“I play fairly high stakes,” Bennett added in a Newsweek interview. “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.” So what’s the problem?

A nationally known business columnist, James K. Glassman, put the whole flap into perspective when he wrote that Bennett made no attempt to cover up his gambling habit. “To gamble … is to indulge in an activity that provides pleasure and excitement and at least the opportunity for profit,” he observed. “In itself, it is neither illegal nor immoral (after all, church bingo has been a thriving business for years). Gambling hurts other people only when it is reckless — like drinking, or driving for that matter.” In other words, no harm no foul.

According to Glassman, “Bennett is being held up to ridicule not so much because he is a hypocrite (he clearly is not) but because he has had the temerity … to state clearly that character counts and that … morality and public policy are deeply intertwined. To many on the left, this concept is hopelessly antique and threatening….”

But most Nevadans don’t think gambling is a moral vice unless a person gambles more than he or she can afford. Therefore, the real hypocrites in this story are the left-wing journalists who try to equate gambling with actual vices like lying, cheating and stealing. So let’s leave Bill Bennett alone. It’s his money and he can spend it as he wishes.

SPECIAL SESSION: Our elected representatives in the Nevada Legislature knew they had 120 days to come up with a state tax and spending package for the next two years — but they couldn’t get it done. So they spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to hang around town for another couple of weeks to do what they should have done in the first place. Let’s remember this sorry performance when we go to the polls next year with special attention to the no-taxers who refused to compromise for four months.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.