With 2002 at a close, it's time to announce the winner of this year's Award for Fattest Right-Wing Moralizer. Our panel of totally biased judges had a hard time this year, as conservative moralists these days seem to be eating like there's no tomorrow. Perhaps that's because many of them, spinning in Armageddon fantasies (don't forget that Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on sinners and warned of further catastrophe), actually believe there is no tomorrow.
Anyway, the award for Fattest Right-Wing Moralizer of 2002 goes to: CNN commentator and co-director of Empower America, Bill Bennett (though National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg is, um, gaining fast). We will make sure to send him the grand prize: a caseload of Little Debbie cupcakes. Actually, we'll send just one box, since our budget's running low this year, what with the sagging Bush economy and all.
Bennett became so fat this year that during each consecutive CNN morning appearance he'd fill up larger portions of the screen, to the point where only jowls and one eye were visible—a sort of breathing, blob-like organism, more scary than anything in Lord of the Rings or Gangs of New York. Al Franken was on target when he called Rush Limbaugh a big fat idiot in his 1996 book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. But Limbaugh has since shed some of the excess weight, while Bennett has blown up like a balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. He's now unquestionably the leader of the Big Mac pack.
Why does Bill Bennett's portliness matter? Because gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and Bennett is one of the famous seven (or so) deadly moralizers in America. We on the awards committee have nothing against overweight people and have in fact struggled with those excess pounds, like many Americans, since our teen years. But if you're going to viciously attack people for behavior that you don't like, then all of your own behavior—including your overeating—is fair game. Mr. Book of Virtues, after all, rants at Americans every chance he gets—and the television media certainly gives him a lot of chances, ushering him onto talk show after talk show.
Bennett relishes in telling us how immoral we are, implying that we must lead the supposedly solemn and sinless life that he does. He takes particular delight in slamming gays, and earlier this year he floated the all-gays-are-pedophiles canard, calling for the Catholic Church to ban homosexual priests in order to solve its problems. But Bennett also shows no mercy for lots of other people, including single mothers, people who work in Hollywood, feminists and that old standby, Bill Clinton.
Meanwhile, Bennett has clearly been scarfing down obscene numbers of lobster tails and French pastries every chance he gets, while millions of poor people in the world—people he devoutly claims to care about—starve to death. And as Bennett and other conservative 'personal responsibility' Republicans tell us, the reckless behavior of a few affects the entire society. So, according to his own arguments, it is heart-unhealthy porkers like Bennett, lining their arteries with cholesterol like it was peanut butter being spread on raisin-nut bread, who are making our insurance premiums go through the roof and are costing us taxpayers a lot of our hard-earned money!
Actually, when you look at Bennett's positions through the prism of his corpulence (a large prism indeed), the hypocrisy shines through in living color. A few years back, for example, Bennett used dubious statistics to claim that gay men had a much lower life expectancy than straight men. In a 1997 Weekly Standard screed, Bennett wrote—in a piece that was embarrassing even for that conservative publication—that 'The best available research suggests that the average life span of male homosexuals is around 43 years of age. Forty-three.'
He also went on ABC's This Week and threw out the same numbers. 'This is tough news. It's not pleasant to hear,' the former Reagan education secretary smugly informed the television audience, exploiting the harsh realities of AIDS and no doubt scaring the daylights out of many gay teenagers, as well as their families and friends. 'But it's very important, and it's part of telling the truth.' The National Review, predictably, soon touted the numbers in an editorial slamming gays.
But in the days that followed, Bennett was debunked in the media, which revealed that his numbers came from the antigay crusader Paul Cameron—who had worked on behalf of religious conservatives—and were riddled with inaccuracies. The American Enterprise Institute's Nick Eberstadt, concurring with other demographers, told Slate's Walter Olson that 'The method [of determining the statistic] as you describe it is just ridiculous.'
Of course, the numbers on obesity are much more solid, and come from the American Medical Association, the U.S. government, research universities around the world and lots of other respected authorities. To use Bennett's own words, this is tough news and it's not pleasant to hear, but it's very important and it's part of telling the truth: fat kills. The average life expectancy of an obese person like Bennett is a lot lower than someone half his weight (from five to 10 years in most studies), and we don't need to get bogus religious-right-backed researchers to tell us that.
When it comes to safer sex, Bennett has been a staunch supporter of abstinence, and slams condom education programs: 'We believe that our nation's public schools should not be doing things like handing out condoms to our children,' he has said, in a typical rant. 'It's bad enough that so much of what passes for art and entertainment these days is the rampant promiscuity and the casual cruelty of the movies and television in much of our popular culture. But to ask us to pay for it is to add insult to injury. We will not be intimidated by putative cultural guardians into accepting either the insult or the injury.'
Though condom education programs have been shown to help stop teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and though many public health professionals believe that the so-called 'abstinence only' programs that the Bush administration pushes are bad public health, Bennett nonetheless made this cute remark not long ago: 'Abstinence works every time it's tried.'
Well, Bill, you'll be shocked to learn that when it comes to eating and losing weight, the same is true: abstinence works every time! Here's to your shedding a few of those pounds in 2003, though, in all honesty, you'll have to do a lot more than control your diet to even begin shedding your well-worn hypocrisy.