Politics & Policy

Hypocrisy Gets a Bad Rap

HYPOCRISY GETS A BAD RAPIt’s shocking how much we’re actually learning from the GOP presidential debates. The first thing we learned is that they aren’t actually debates. They’re more like ego showcases. But as Alan Dershowitz has demonstrated for lo these many years, just because something is asinine, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Take last night. We learned that the party supposedly hobbled by abortion could stage a “debate” without even mentioning the A-word, except in regard to China’s evil practice of forcing women to have them. We learned that our resident free-market voluptuary, Steve Forbes, apparently thinks a President can, or more telling, should have the ability to lower oil prices. “Again,” he hectored Governor Bush, “what would you do now to get that [oil] price down now? Not a few years from now?” And as for Governor Bush, we’re learning that if national security depended on verbal agility in a candidate forum we’d probably all be glowing in the dark a few days into his first term.

#ad#But the question I would most like to hear the answer to will never be asked. It is, “Is there anything you currently do in your private life that you don’t think the American people should do in theirs? If so would you, as President, try to convince people to do as you say, not as you do?”

Now of course, nobody will ask it. Not because my question isn’t singularly brilliant in its incisiveness, but because nobody would answer it fruitfully. “Well, yes, Cokie, I’m actually quite fond of huffing hairspray but I want to be very clear to the children of America that they should just say no to Aqua Net.” Or, “Funny you should ask, Sam, why right at this moment my chief of staff is handcuffed to the radiator in my basement and let me tell you, if this debate goes poorly for me, it’s going to be a long night for him. Nevertheless, be assured that as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the land, I would never condone such behavior by ordinary citizens.”

Especially in the wake of President Clinton’s Baron-and-the-Milkmaid act, the definition of hypocrisy has become more amorphous than the President’s definition of “is.” Is it hypocritical to prosecute sexual-harassment laws if you use interns the way Fredo Corleone used cocktail waitresses at the Tropicana? Is it hypocritical to throw stones at people if the shoes under the bed in your own glass house aren’t your spouse’s? The short answer is, of course, yes. But does that make the charges any less pertinent? After all, a hypocrite isn’t necessarily a liar. If I denounce some deviant for his, er, “close friendship” with a goat, will that charge be meaningless if it turns out I, too, have been known to frequent certain cloven-hoof establishments? Does hypocrisy make judging impossible?

It’s a tough yet unspoken question for all of the presidential candidates as well as the rest of us, and yet nobody wants to ask it, let alone knows what the answer is. We want the next President to be some sort of moral leader, but we don’t want to peek into the crannies of his life where morality resides. Bill Bradley says we have the right to know whether he’s a criminal but not whether he’s a sinner. George Bush refuses to answer the fun questions if they predate 1975. And Al Gore: He says he’s mad at the President, but thinks he’s great, but is really mad, but is honored to have served with him, but thinks he disgraced the office, but…oh you get it. Conservatives have struggled with hypocrisy for a long time. After all, it’s a bit of an elitist, aristocratic failing. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, rich and powerful people have been telling relatively poor and weak people how to worship, how to work, how to live. Egalitarians hate that, because, well, they hate so many things, but wealth and power have got to be at the top of their list. The fact is that poor, uneducated people of all races and creeds can’t afford to blur the lines between right and wrong the way the wealthy can. It’s not fair, but that’s the fact. If it were otherwise, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and perhaps Bill Clinton would be rehearsing right now for the Christmas Pageant in a prison near you.

Still, I for one am not bothered by intellectual hypocrisy. I think we should do everything reasonable to make America more religious, and yet I am not particularly devout. I think kids shouldn’t watch too much TV even though I can probably recount off the top of my head the plots of every episode of M*A*S*H, Star Trek, and Happy Days. I think we must fight moral decay, but I love women’s-prison movies. In short, I agree with the philosopher Max Scheler. He liked the company of the ladies more than his public teachings would suggest. When he was charged with hypocrisy, he said the sign pointing to Boston doesn’t need to go there itself.

But I am not running for President myself (too many goats in my closet). Our current contenders all, all, claim they will “restore dignity” to the Oval Office. The question remains, how do you do that? In effect, does the sign that points to the White House need to go there itself?

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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