CBS’s Sunday Morning is one of my favorite news programs. I’ve long thought of it as some of the best public television on commercial TV, and that’s a huge compliment. I’m also a fan of contributor Nancy Giles, but this week’s commentary irked me. Ms. Giles began her reflection on last weekend’s Republican debate by siding with presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich in his claim that the question thrown to him, asking him if he cared to address the claim by his ex-wife that he asked her for an open marriage, should have been out of bounds. Many leaders, she stated, engage in questionable behavior outside of their jobs, but much of it isn’t and shouldn’t be the public’s business. She then went on to state what the question from the moderator should have been, “Mr. Speaker, you want to reduce the size of the government but you want to expand its reach by banning abortion and marriage equality. You want to pair ghetto kids with janitorial jobs to teach them a work ethic, but you were fined $300,000 for ethics violations. Isn’t that hypocritical?” From Ms. Giles’ perspective these are the fair questions that directly relate to Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy, and I couldn’t agree with her more.
The part that bothered me was what came next. In what appeared to be an attempt to be fair and balanced, Ms. Giles said, “Of course, Democrats do it too.” Her evidence of the idea that moral hypocrisy knows no party was Bill Clinton. “Clinton,” she said, “was considered a champion of women’s rights, but in private he was chasing tail.” Really? President Clinton’s consensual sexual fling with Monica Lewinsky means that he can’t possibly believe the feminist principles he espouses? His marital infidelity is evidence of his hypocrisy when it comes to gender equality? If Bill Clinton is a hypocrite, it’s not because he talks feminism out of one side of his mouth and lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky out of the other. Now there are many examples of how the actions of progressives fall short of their rhetoric, and this is an area where Bill Clinton disappointed many; his compromises on the rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the military to serve in the military and Federal employees’ access to abortion services are two examples. Did he disappoint? Yes. But is he a hypocrite? No. Hypocrisy is the act of preaching (often literally) the immorality of some, campaigning vigorously for whole groups of citizens to be denied rights because of their sinfulness, and then either knowingly benefiting from those people or even engaging in said behaviors oneself. And the mind-blowing phenomenon of mixing hypocrisy with high-profile politics is, well let’s be honest, that’s the realm of conservative Republicans.
Ms. Giles makes such a huge reach here, but I’ve seen it before. Why do progressives always feel the need to be fair and make up unconvincing, self-inflicted charges of hypocrisy? How many public officials have loudly voiced their outrage at illegal immigration, declaiming the notion that it’s the downfall of our economy and a threat to national security, only to have evidence surface of their hiring of undocumented workers in their own households? Now, how many of them are Democrats? None. Hypocrisy isn’t behaving badly; it’s condemning behavior with vitriol and disdain in public while engaging in it in private. Folks across the political spectrum behave questionably at times, but hypocrisy has been perfected by conservatives alone.
When a Democrat talks about the nation’s responsibility to look out for its most vulnerable when he’s on the stump but then gets caught talking about welfare queens when he thinks no one is listening, then he should certainly be called out as a hypocrite. When the head of the Human Rights Campaign gets caught supporting the National Organization for Marriage, then headlines should read “Hypocrite!” This, however, just doesn’t happen. When was the last time a newspaper headline read “Progressive Unitarian Universalist Chaplain Votes ‘Yes’ on Proposition 8”? Never. When was the last time one read “Anti-Gay Mega-Church Pastor Accused of Sex with Four Male Parishioners”? May 27, 2011.
But the question remains. Why do progressives have to sandwich “to be fair” between an accusation against conservatives on one side and an unwarranted self-flagellation on the other? Maybe softening the blow through self-denigration goes hand in hand with a natural sense of justice and equality. They can’t seem to say “You’re wrong” without saying “But I’m wrong too.” I think the progressive cause could benefit from some of the self-righteous certainty that the moral crusaders of the right wing seem to carry in spades.