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The end to the fighting in Iraq posed a grave crisis for pundits. No other story was at hand to fully occupy their time and observational skills, not even the Laci Peterson murder. Then, miraculously, came the William Bennett exposé. According to a story in The Washington Monthly, Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, The Moral Compass, and several other works extolling virtue over vice, has reportedly lost $8 million gambling in casinos over the past decade. Deus ex slot machina! The pundits had work again. Liberal commentators have been quick to pounce, and conservatives have been just as speedy in defense. But this sort of traditional Left-Right warfare will soon pass. The true importance of the Bennett story lies with the Right alone. For half a century, two ideological strains — the forces of Good Government and the forces of Libertarianism — have vied for the soul of the Republican Party. Both strains stand in sharp relief against the fiery backdrop of the Bill Bennett defense. One strain, Libertarianism, is likely to emerge strengthened, even perhaps ascendant, from this fight. AMERICA’S VIRTUE GURU William Bennett, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, former secretary of education, former drug czar, and full-time writer and speaker on morality in public life, is not Cotton Mather. He smoked for many years and apparently savors the joys of the table. He is also a first-rate intellect. Since leaving government service over a decade ago, he has produced a series of books and lectures that have garnered him the title of “America’s Virtue Guru.” His consistent theme has been that private vices matter to the public polity. Bennett never condemned gambling in his works, nor did he ever deny his own participation. He admitted he gambled, comparing it to drinking: “If you can’t handle it, don’t do it.” On the other hand, Bennett never disclosed his hobby’s multimillion-dollar scope. One might even say he dissembled. He pointed to church bingo as the genesis of his habit. Today, Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos reportedly compete for his patronage, offering free limousine service, hotel rooms, and meals — perks not routinely available to bingo enthusiasts. Liberal commentators were beside themselves with glee when the story broke. Michael Kinsley, a 50-something journalist who still writes like the smartest boy in freshman English, exulted: “As the joyous word spread, crack flowed like water through inner-city streets, family court judges began handing out free divorces, and children lit bonfires of ‘The Book of Virtues,’ ‘More Virtuous Virtues,’ ‘Who Cheesed My Virtue?,’ ‘Moral Tails: Virtue for Dogs,’ etc. And cynics everywhere thought, for just a moment: Maybe there is a God after all.” That kind of left-wing gloating drove conservatives mad, and they rallied around Bennett. National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg found it “hard to recall a more asinine and intellectually shameless ‘gotcha’ story in [his] adult lifetime” — which lifetime is not as long as Kinsley’s, but long enough to make his point. But not all conservatives joined this coalition of the willing-to-overlook. The American Spectator‘s Web site dissented from the attempt to “whitewash the unseemly public vision of Bill Bennett sitting before a slot machine for three hours at a time to unwind after a speech before a family values group.” James Dobson of Focus on the Family censured him. So did other social conservative organizations. THE GREAT SCHISM The dilemma for the Right is deeper — and much more interesting — than the Left’s gloating. The fault lines of the dilemma trace back half a century. In the 1940s, as Republicans rose up from under the New Deal deluge, they divided into two camps. Eastern establishment Republicans accepted the notion of enlarged government, but insisted that they could run it more economically, efficiently, and ethically. The mainly Midwestern camp repudiated the New Deal. They favored a minimal role for government as domestic constable and frontier guard. They called the Eastern establishment “Me-Too Republicans.” The Easterners called them “Neanderthals.” In fact, it would be fairer to dub one camp “Good Government” Republicans, and the other “Libertarian” Republicans. Good Government Republicans were championed by Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon. Libertarian Republicans were led by Robert A. Taft, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. The lines between the camps were never sharp, and most successful politicians tried to appeal to both. Still, there were undeniable dividing milestones. The presidential nomination of Goldwater in 1964 marked a triumph for the Libertarians. The ensuing electoral disaster led to their temporary retreat. In 1976, Gerald Ford, a Good Government exemplar, barely held off a primary challenge by Reagan. In 1980, Reagan returned and defeated another Good Government Republican, the elder George Bush, for the nomination. Reagan then won the White House, thus establishing the dominance of the Libertarian camp. After Reagan’s election, the Good Government Republicans underwent a transformation. They no longer saw the central role of the federal government as regulating the economy. Instead, they wanted the government to promote civic virtues, such as public service and patriotism, and private virtues, such as abstinence and chastity. This change coincided with an influx into the party of disgruntled, formerly Democratic intellectuals — Bennett, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the so-called neoconservatives. Libertarians also underwent a transformation, leavened by the intellectual influences of Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand. They grew more academic, cosmopolitan, and tolerant. In the 1980s, Libertarian Republicans championed the war on inflation, and Good Government Republicans championed the war on drugs. In the 1990s, for the Good Government side, Bill Clinton was the Devil, and his impeachment a holy cause. For the Libertarian side, Clinton’s tax hikes and racial quotas were more sinful than his dalliances. Today the Good Government wing worries about divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. The Libertarian wing worries about the budget and the marginal tax rate. Successful politicians still manage to straddle both camps. But differences are visible, especially in private lives. Good Government types read Commentary. Libertarians read Reason. At holidays, the Good Government crowd gives Bennett’s Moral Compass. Libertarians give Friedman’s Free to Choose. For entertainment, Good Government folks watch “South Pacific.” Libertarians watch “South Park.” The Good Government crowd still likes Charlton Heston as Moses. Libertarians prefer Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.” Good Government attorneys refer to Judge Robert Bork and Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Libertarian lawyers refer to Judge Alex Kozinski escaping from Romania. When pressed, both will admit they “experimented” with marijuana in college. But the Good Government Republican will recall with a frown; the Libertarian will barely suppress a giggle. DO UNTO OTHERS Bill Bennett has been a pre-eminent member of the Good Government wing. He believes that private morality is bound up with civic health and that drug consumption, unwed pregnancy, promiscuity, and other personal foibles are proper subjects of public attention. That is why he condemned Clinton’s immorality so strenuously. “Where’s the outrage?” he demanded, as the public yawned. Now listen to Bennett’s defenders. “What he does with his money is his own business,” writes James Glassman in a typical defense. “He can buy a house in Aspen or a private jet or collect Impressionist paintings or travel to the Antarctic or dine out with family and friends at expensive restaurants every night. It’s up to him.” Jonah Goldberg crosses ideological lines to quote The New Republic‘s Peter Beinart with approval: “This is something he did in his private life. . . . [W]hat people do in their private lives, unless there’s some blatant, serious hypocrisy, is really not anyone’s business.” Notice the themes. It’s his life. It’s his money. Let him do what he likes as long as he doesn’t harm others. This is classic Libertarianism mobilized in the defense of the Good Government champion. There is nothing wrong with this defense — other than the incongruity between philosophy and beneficiary. But the philosophy could apply in other contexts. What if the former drug czar were a casual marijuana user? What if he frequented gay bars? “What he does with his money is his own business.” What if he and Mrs. Bennett traded partners with Mr. and Mrs. Jack Kemp? “What people do in their private lives is really not anyone’s business.” And so, without fanfare or notice, the Good Government wing of the Republican Party has made a virtue (no pun intended) of necessity and embraced the creed of the Libertarian wing. Leave Bill Bennett’s private life alone! they cry. Very well. Do unto others. In the 1960s, there was a saying: A conservative is a liberal who got mugged. For the new political era, a libertarian is a conservative who got caught. Lawrence J. Siskind, a partner in San Francisco’s Harvey Siskind Jacobs, specializes in intellectual property law. This commentary was distributed by the American Lawyer Media News Service.

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