The uses of low-pocrisy

Posted: Mar 04, 2004 12:00 AM

Liberal journalists love to find hypocrisy among conservatives who display religious faith and practice family values more in rhetoric than in reality. That accusation is often unfair -- many do walk the talk -- but one way to guard against that is to begin emphasizing what Texans call low-pocrisy, downplaying virtues and not hiding weaknesses.

One warrant for doing this is biblical. We're told that the last shall be first. We're instructed to take the lowest seat at the table (far better to be moved up than to be moved down). We're also given examples throughout Scripture of low-pocrisy: Moses, David and most of the prophets regularly proclaim their unworthiness.

I had a funny experience with this during the last presidential campaign. Not intentionally practicing low-pocrisy, but just trying to be accurate, I repeatedly asked reporters to see me as only a very occasional, very informal advisor to then-Gov. George Bush. As I denied influence, reporters upgraded me to "close policy adviser" (Washington Post), "the revered intellectual guru of Governor Bush (New York Times) and "closest domestic adviser and soul mate" (Moscow Times).

It took a while for me to realize what was going on. George Stephanopoulos and many others have written about the ardent competition to have access to a president or major presidential candidate. An office inches closer, a few extra minutes of face time, a press mention of soulmate closeness: that's the definition of advisor power. So reporters reasoned this way: "The game is access. Olasky downplays his access. Thus, he must have huge access."

My attempts misfired, but the outcome does suggest a cynical lesson for those who want to grab it: Less can lead to more. Machiavellians should note that those who truly do have influence, if they want to be talked about, are best off downplaying it. Sit at the lowest seat, and someone in the press will notice and be inclined to produce a supposed scoop about behind-the-scenes string-pullers.

Many conservative organizations, often because of fund-raising concerns, disregard both the Bible and the cynics. Some promise big, accomplish little and exaggerate what they accomplish. Some describe leaders as walking books of virtue. In doing so, they become sitting ducks for press hunters eager to learn that paragons have fallen prey to the sin that, as God warned Cain, is always crouching at our door. Every time one of the mighty falls, not just an organization but an entire movement takes a hit.

We all share in this sin. Often we buy a book "written" by the leader of a conservative organization. We bask in his purported brilliance -- but the book actually came from a ghostwriter. Should we be surprised? God sometimes dispenses talents lavishly, but it's rare that top managerial talent and top writing talent reside in the same person. It's even rarer for God to make the sun stand still so that an executive who combines those disparate abilities has enough time both to run the show and to write it.

We often push leaders to overshoot on what I'd call the rhetoric curve. Some think that more volume means more effectiveness, but Teddy Roosevelt had it right: Speak softly, and carry a big stick. God spoke to Elijah (First Kings, chapter 19) not through "a great and strong wind," nor through an earthquake, nor through a fire: "And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him ..."

We all need to listen for the low whisper, and leaders need to learn when not to shout.