The nub of every con game is that the mark wants something for nothing. If you hold this hapless immigrant’s wallet-bulging with a wad of bills-while he fetches his duffel bag from the YMCA, then he will reward you handsomely. When, after he fails to reclaim his wallet, you inspect his bills and find that they have suddenly turned into Monopoly money, while your own wallet, filled with fewer but real bills, has vanished, you may say, with justice, that his sin was worse than yours: He lied and stole. But you too were guilty. You wanted top dollar for doing what a desk clerk would have done for free or for peanuts; you wanted to be a well-paid Good Samaritan. You wanted something for nothing.
Jayson Blair, formerly of The New York Times , has the classic personality of a con man, engaging and amoral. How was The Times a classic mark?
Mr. Blair conned The Times two ways, systemically and personally. The system Mr. Blair gamed was The Times ‘ efforts to promote diversity. Outreach programs of any kind always involve a special effort to look for certain kinds of people. In making that effort, other kinds of people will not be looked for. This is the irreducible asymmetry of affirmative action. But private institutions are entitled to make that effort, whether to right old wrongs, to join the 21st century or for whatever reason. The danger for them comes when they try to speed up the process. If special efforts do not find enough worthy people, or only find them slowly, they then start looking for unworthy ones. They redefine worth as anyone with the right genitals or hue.
So Jayson Blair, diverse young black man, was hired by The Times even though he had not graduated from college, and he began to make an un- Times- ian number of mistakes. That was the first stage of trying to get something for nothing, and the first penalty. Yet over time, the system, on its own terms, began to work. The Times took him on when it probably shouldn’t have, and overlooked too many errors. But it didn’t overlook his errors indefinitely. The editors of the Metro section, where Mr. Blair landed early on, decided that he needed to work more slowly and more carefully. They were going to give him the journalistic equivalent of breathing exercises. Like tugboats nudging an ocean liner, they were going to turn Jayson Blair around.
But Mr. Blair had also been gaming personalities, chiefly the managing editor, Gerald Boyd, and the executive editor, Howell Raines. What Mr. Blair offered them, and what they seized, was gratified pride. They would not merely preside over a system, they would incarnate it. They themselves would find the black diamond in the rough. It was they who yanked him from his earnest purgatory to the sniper story, and so ultimately to the spectacular dénouement. “Ah, yes, smart fellow, Boot. He was the right man for that job.” “It was you who discovered him, Lord Copper.” “Of course, naturally … had my eye on him for some time. Glad he made good. There’s always a chance for real talent on the Beast , eh, Salter?” “Definitely, Lord Copper.”
No institution can be managed by the meek. Leaders, whether editors or generals, must have big egos. But then the egos encounter the world, and there is a Darwinian sorting-out. Ulysses Grant no doubt thought well of himself. But so did Fighting Joe Hooker. How many debacles will a great institution wish to absorb?
William Bennett is another institution-not as considerable as The New York Times , certainly, but as weighty as a single man can be. Mr. Bennett was not a con man, but a hypocrite.
The Book of Virtues , Mr. Bennett’s best-seller, defined-or rather, recovered-a mode of moral exhortation running back through Parson Weems to Plutarch. Yet Mr. Bennett had a big gambling habit. His net losses have not been revealed, but his gross losses reportedly totaled $8 million over the last decade. That’s a lot of quarters, if you’re thinking of conventional slot machines, but Mr. Bennett did not trifle with such contraptions, for he was a preferred customer.
The hypocrisy rap comes garlanded with a blizzard of qualifications, like Post-its around your computer monitor. Mr. Bennett himself never condemned gambling as a vice, nor does the Catholic Church, his church (think of all those bingo games). Mr. Bennett was also not secretive about it: Small stories on his gambling had appeared in the press before the big wave rolled in. How then can he be guilty of hypocrisy?
Some hypocrites-the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter , for instance-know they present a whited front to the world. But they are a rare phenomenon. The road to most hypocrisy is the road to most failure-insensibly doing the thing you don’t know, or refuse to know, is not quite right.
The Bennett discussion, and no doubt Mr. Bennett himself, bogged down in the question of the morality of gambling per se. But his problem is not that he gambled. Mr. Bennett played high-stakes video poker and high-stakes slot machines-gambling stripped of any pleasing externals, and made solitary and repetitious. He was not going out to Aqueduct, or having a weekly game with the boys; he was banging at the law of averages in the most obdurate and compulsive way. His gambling was not like going to a strip club; it was like being glued to a college slut’s video cam. It was not like puking at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade; it was like having a bottle in your desk. It was not like being pulled over for having a joint in your glove compartment; it was like rolling spliffs the size of chair legs and experiencing nirvana every night by watching cloud patterns on the Weather Channel. I do not like the language of 12-step programs when applied to anything but booze and drugs, so let us not speak of addiction and denial. Let us say, in old-fashioned language-the language of The Book of Virtues -that Mr. Bennett was the slave of his habit. That is the sense in which Mr. Bennett betrayed the whole thrust of his exhortations.
Hypocrisy is not the worst vice in the world. If we consented only to be taught by the perfect, then we would learn very little. But when a failing is exposed, one must then be honest-to one’s public, and to oneself.
Who is easier to reform, the hypocrite or the mark? William Bennett has intelligence and humor. Does The Times ?
Follow Richard Brookhiser via RSS.