We've recently learned that President Bush took a loan from a company on whose board of directors he served, even though he now wants to ban such practices. The New York Times headlined the story "Bush Calls for End to Loans of a Type He Once Received." White House spinners and spokesmen are working furiously to explain why Bush isn't being hypocritical. "They are an entirely different set of circumstances," administration spokesman Scott McClellan insisted with a faint whiff of panic.
Meanwhile, Democrats are Christmas-pony happy over Bush's troubles. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, in his usual razor-sharp monotone, serenely observed: "It puts him (Bush) in a difficult position to criticize others."
I have only one question about Bush's hypocrisy: So what?
In a town where looking for hypocrisy is easier than looking for sand on a beach, I am consistently amazed how everyone is willing to accept that hypocrisy is always wrong, even though what we admire most in our politicians is hypocrisy. It's just that when we like the hypocrisy, we call it courage.
Take campaign finance reform. Sen. John McCain is considered one of the bravest politicians in America, at least by elite journalists who often define their jobs as the search for hypocrisy. Why is he a paladin of political courage? Because he dedicated himself to the cause of campaign finance reform. And why did he commit his eternal honor to slaying the dragon of Big Money? Because he took some himself.
McCain was part of the once-infamous Keating Five campaign finance scandal. He didn't enjoy having his integrity questioned. So, he decided to attack the system.
And yet, we don't fret over McCain's "hypocrisy" for waging a battle against a system he benefited from.
But McCain's experience is different, you might say, since he felt his integrity was unfairly besmirched in the Keating scandal. Fair enough. But do I really need to call the roll of Democrats who took -and continue to take -precisely the sort of huge donations from corporations and PACs they want to outlaw?
I must have missed the condemnatory New York Times headline declaring "Democrats Call for End of Contributions of a Type they Once Received."
As often as not, our political heroes (and villains, depending on where you're coming from) are hypocrites. As attorney general, Robert Kennedy was more of a threat to civil rights than critics imagine John Ashcroft to be. It was RFK, remember, who bugged Martin Luther King. And yet, when Kennedy became a born-again liberal he became a secular messiah by many liberals.
Choose your poison. Bill Clinton was a huge supporter of feminist causes. Ronald Reagan was a former union boss. Woodrow Wilson was an unreconstructed bigot who championed human rights and democracy. Teddy Roosevelt was a flaming hypocrite who was regularly denounced by the wealthy as a "traitor to his class" for his attacks on the Trusts and other so-called "malefactors of great wealth." Richard Nixon was supposedly a bigoted and anti-Semitic conservative who hired and relied on Jews, supported Israel and pretty much made affirmative action into the quota system liberals consider sacrosanct.
When you sit back and think about it, we largely define political courage as the willingness to contradict yourself. Richard Nixon's trip to China, Bill Clinton's denunciation of Sister Soulja, President Bush's sop to the steel industry: These overtures were all hailed as bold and brave by those who agreed with them and hypocritical by those who didn't.
When Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, the liberal establishment exploded with charges of hypocrisy. "This blundering intervention," The New York Times thundered, "is a body blow to the president's own credibility."
Calling the pardon "a betrayal of the public trust," Ted Kennedy asked, "Is there one system of justice for the average citizen and another system for the high and mighty?" This from the man who finagled his way out of a homicide charge. Talk about hypocrisy.
A quarter century later, Ford received the Profiles in Courage award for his pardon decision. The award is supposed to go to politicians who make brave but unpopular decisions. Yet when Ted Kennedy gave him the award, The New York Times applauded, hypocritically.
Indeed, if you wade through the list of award recipients, you'll find many hypocrites. Among them, former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker received the award in 1992 for forcing an income tax on voters after swearing he wouldn't. If conservatives gave out the award instead of unreconstructed liberals, we'd have to call it the Profiles in Hypocrisy Award.
Now, I don't think hypocrisy is good, but it's not nearly as terrible as we're taught to believe. If hypocrisy were the most terrible thing in the world, we would demand that overeaters endorse gluttony. So is Bush a hypocrite for wanting to ban a legal and accepted practice he -and thousands of others -benefited from? Of course. But you still need to explain why that's bad.