IDAHO ISN'T MASSACHUSETTS, so as soon as the story of his bathroom escapade broke it was clear that Senator Larry Craig would soon be needing new business cards. Except for those elected from the Bay State, US senators and representatives involved in sex scandals are almost always forced to leave Congress. Making advances to an undercover policeman while cruising an airport men's room more than qualifies as a sex scandal, so the senator's only real choice was to resign in disgrace or be thrown out by the voters.
And so Craig becomes the latest in a depressingly long and bipartisan line of ex-members of Congress done in by their libido -- Wayne Hays, Wilbur Mills, Robert Bauman, Dan Crane, Brock Adams, Bob Packwood, and Mark Foley, to mention only a few. He probably won't be the last.
Craig's behavior was lewd and dishonorable, but -- have you noticed? -- that isn't the main reason he has been excoriated. In much journalistic and political commentary, the senator's real crime is not that he was trolling for anonymous, adulterous sex in a public bathroom, but that doing so supposedly proved him a hypocrite. "Savor the rank hypocrisy of Craig's personal and public behavior," wrote Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason magazine, in the Los Angeles Times. "An arch-social conservative, Craig voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act . . . and he is a strong supporter of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage."
Representative Barney Frank -- a beneficiary of the above-mentioned Massachusetts exemption -- compressed the indictment into a sentence: "The hypocrisy," Frank told the AP, "is to deny legal equality to gay people, but then to engage in gay behavior." The Idaho Statesman disclosed last week that it had undertaken an investigation into Craig's sex life after he was "outed" by a gay blogger in October. The blogger's goal, the paper said, was "to nail a hypocritical Republican foe of gay rights."
I find Craig's behavior odious, and I think it right that he was shamed into leaving office. What it isn't clear to me is that he was a hypocrite.
In the first place, opposing same-sex marriage doesn't make someone a "foe of gay rights" or of gay people; redefining marriage is a controversial political issue on which reasonable people can disagree.
But even if you do characterize Craig's public record as one of hostility to gays and homosexual behavior, his behavior in the Minneapolis men's room wasn't hypocritical. It was squalid. It was degrading. Can anyone imagine that Craig was proud of what he was doing? Or that he was skulking around a public toilet trying to pick up strangers because he believed such behavior was unobjectionable? Surely the opposite was true -- not that he approved of what he was doing, but that he disapproved, and hoped no one would find out.
A furtive surrender to temptation may indicate lust or stupidity or a failure of will, but it takes more than that to prove hypocrisy. The H-word gets thrown around with abandon these days, but generally what is meant by it is inconsistency -- failing to live up to one's words, falling short of the values one espouses.
Thus a politician who calls for more compassion yet rarely gives a dime to charity is inconsistent, but not necessarily hypocritical. A gun-control advocate who shoots an intruder with an unregistered handgun can be faulted for not acting in keeping with his beliefs, but that alone doesn't make him a hypocrite. A woman strongly opposed to abortion who gets one herself when she becomes pregnant hasn't practiced what she preached. But those aren't instances of hypocrisy -- not unless they never meant what they preached in the first place.
Hypocrisy isn't merely saying one thing but sometimes doing another. Nor is it simply having a double standard - lionizing Anita Hill, say, but trashing Paula Jones (or vice versa). Hypocrisy is worse than that. It's a form of duplicity. A hypocrite is one who doesn't believe the moral views he proclaims and violates them routinely in his own life.
So who is a hypocrite? The antidrug zealot who cheerfully tokes up with his friends. The "family-values" politician who blasts the sins of others while blithely carrying on affairs of his own. The public champion of women's rights who privately treats women like dirt. The cleric who preaches chastity and abstinence, but is a serial pedophile behind closed doors.
Hypocrisy is deceit, not weakness; a vice, not a blind spot. Larry Craig has much to atone for. But the charge of hypocrisy seems to me a bum rap.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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