What if Americans were to simply agree that the one sin of politicians that we can not abide by is hypocrisy? And that bad behavior that doesn’t involve hypocrisy is okay, or okay enough? If we could just do that, we’d be…French. (And therefore ultra thin and impossibly elegant. I could live with that.)
Bad behavior of politicians, particularly male politicians, is simply a given. Take John Edwards, for example. I always thought his Glen Campbell haircut was creepy, and now it turns out his extra-marital behavior was creepy, as well. But should that make him such a pariah that he couldn’t show his face at the Democratic convention? Should one of the only voices speaking out on behalf of poor people really have been silenced in that way?
It’s an expectations game. Americans expect male rock stars to sleep with thousands of women, cheat on their wives, have lots of kids with lots of different women, drink and do drugs with abandon, smoke cigarettes, gamble away all their money, and generally live the life of debauchery many a young man (and woman) can only dream of. Why would we expect better behavior from politicians who, after all, share many of the same character traits as rock stars, starting with the narcissism Edwards acknowledged during his semi mea culpa?
The fact is we love to celebrate men behaving badly in American pop culture. Just look at cable television where the id is celebrated 24/7. What was the most critically acclaimed cable TV show in recent years? The Sopranos. Check out the TV listings for the new fall season: there’s Entourage (Hollywood dudes behaving badly), Mad Men (advertising execs in the 1960s behaving badly), Dexter (serial killer, by definition behaving badly), Californication (Hollywood writer behaving badly). But then we’re shocked—shocked, I tell you!—when politicians act indecently.
Speaking of which…Bill Clinton, the poster boy for indecent behavior among politicians, has been hitting the talk show circuit recently, and, boy, do I miss him. He’s the total package: brilliant, compassionate, approachable, charismatic. For a while there, it looked like he’d lost his mojo, but he’s got it back! Would I have preferred he didn’t mess around with the intern in the Oval Office? Yes! But, does anyone any longer think the American public benefitted from the current president, who “restored integrity to the White House”, i.e., didn’t fool around with any interns, but started an unjust war, ruined our reputation in the world, allowed the housing and financial markets to nearly collapse, etc., etc.? NO!
So, once we agree to lower our expectations regarding the sexual behavior of politicians, does that mean we are no longer entitled to hold them to any moral standards at all? No. We must draw the line at hypocrisy.
The source of most hypocrisy in American politics is a moral certitude that is so unyielding, it’s almost bound to trip up the person espousing it. Remember Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York who fell from grace in the wake of a sex scandal? If Spitzer had been elected governor of New York on the platform of restoring Times Square to its former XXX glory, and his theme song had been “She Works Hard for the Money”, and he’d started his stump speech with, “Yeah, I’m a pig, but I’ve got a solid plan for averting a fiscal crisis in New York state by legalizing prostitution”, then it wouldn’t have been so shocking to discover that he’d been availing himself of the five-diamond services of the Emperor’s Club. But, no, he presented himself as Dudley Do-Right, out to rid the world of immorality and indecency.
That’s the sort of hypocrisy that is worse than the actual misbehavior. Ditto Senator Larry Craig, who railed against homosexuality but was found tap-tapping the guy in the next stall in the Minneapolis airport bathroom. Ditto the recently deceased Representative Henry Hyde, who spearheaded the impeachment charges against President Clinton despite his own extramarital affair in the past. And on and on and on.
Not all hypocrisy by politicians involves sexual behavior of course; it extends to all manner of contradictory behavior and speech. This brings me to the current presidential election season, which should be dubbed the hypocrisy season when it comes to John McCain. Need evidence? McCain persists in sporting the Maverick name tag but yields to the wishes of the Christian right in his party rather than defending his more moderate views. While his campaign slogan is “country first”, even conservative columnists like David Brooks of the New York Times and George Will of Newsweek believe he put campaign first when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.
McCain and Palin portray themselves as being of the people and then insult the people’s intelligence by claiming that Alaska’s proximity to Russia counts as foreign policy experience for the governor and by insisting that Barack Obama was calling Palin a pig when he used the “lipstick on a pig” aphorism. (That’s another thing we should all be able to agree on: can politicians just stop with the folksy sayings that are best left to Dr. Phil?)
McCain allowed multiple speakers at the Republican Convention, including the snarling Rudy Guliani, to mock Obama’s role as a community organizer and then appeared at a forum at Columbia University a short time later to extol the virtues of public service. McCain was in favor of deregulation of the financial industry, but now claims he’s the one to reform the industry which many experts believe is in its current crisis in large part because of deregulation. Aaaarrrrrggggghhhhhh.
Some might say that I’m behaving badly by pointing out the hypocrisies of the Republican candidates only. Well, for one thing, I believe there’s so many more to cite for them. But, besides, I admit it: I’m biased. But at least I’m not a hypocrite.