The Usual Apology
I think the standard explanation of the trashing accorded the foolish Governor Mark Sanford (who in embarrassing, and by now truly surreal fashion, confessed, and confessed, and confessed to an affair with an Argentinean girlfriend) and the tsk-tsk treatment of former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards — who, in grotesque fashion, fathered a child with his mistress, lied about it on several occasions while he tried to gain political mileage from his ill wife, all as he concocted an alibi that his aide, not he, had really impregnated Rielle Hunter — is that Sanford suffered from the addition wage of hypocrisy.
That is, self-proclaimed moralists like the late Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, John Ensign and other conservatives raised the sexual morality bar high on others, and then proved they could not meet it themselves, while libertine Democrats like a Bill Clinton, Barney Frank, or Jesse Jackson never claimed to judge others’ sexual mores. Therefore their behavior is not at odds with their rhetoric. So despite their public status, the “sin” in their case remains more a “private” manner.
But there are some problems with this facile analysis. While it is true that Americans seem to detest hypocrisy more than sin, there is something more to this strange unevenness in attitudes toward conservative and liberal transgression. Feminists have long argued that serial womanizing is a sort of moral cheapening of their gender. The supposed male power broker uses rank, money, and privilege to sexually exploit the vulnerable, gullible, younger (fill in the blanks) female. A lot of Foucouldian gibberish is thrown in about power and control — as in mandarin males exploiting victimized female subordinates in supposedly consensual relationships.
So why then do professed feminists largely ignore an Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, who did not suffer an additional wage of hypocrisy? Monicagate, after all, was a classic feminist cause célèbre: Monica was younger, supposedly naïve, a subordinate, without power and a voice, a victim drawn into an asymmetrical relationship with her “boss,” who used his superior position to cajole the younger woman into exploitive sexual services. But, of course, feminists were largely quiet — although not entirely quiet as many prominent commentators trashed Monica, as they had Paula Jones, as they had Clinton’s harem, as a sort of trashy vixen, whose sluttishness (see David Letterman on such usage) endangered the political capital of a feminist supporter of everything from abortion to gay rights.
Another exegesis goes something like this: “Well, you conservatives suffer the additional wage of hypocrisy on matters sexual since you yourselves are so moralistic; while we liberals get hit hard on matters of high living and privilege given our professed egalitarianism. So it evens out.” But is that second half of the equation true?
Taxes for Thee, not Me
I don’t think so. Very few in the media ran with the Timothy Geithner messy story. The problem was not just that he took quite embarrassing unlawful deductions, but actually pocketed the very FICA allowances provided him by the IMF to address his exposure to self-employment payroll taxes.
In addition, Geithner was to oversee, as Treasury Secretary, the Internal Revenue Service, which, given its limited resources, must rely on the goodwill and honest voluntary compliance of the American taxpayer. Furthermore, Geithner was part of a new administration whose trademark theme was that an under-taxed elite, in near unpatriotic and greedy fashion, had made out like bandits in the Bush years. Thus, those over the sinister $250,000 threshold owed the rest of us overdue money as a sort of financial penance. I could ditto the cases of Daschle, Solis, and Richardson as well, but leave you with Charles Rangel and Chris Dodd — champions of the people and enemies of privilege, who in the most tawdry fashion sold influence for things like lower interest on loans and possible gifts to their eponymous centers.
But perhaps the most glaring example is the strange case of former Senator and Vice President Al Gore. He was canonized with various awards including, but not limited to the Nobel Prize, on the basis that his disinterested global campaign to raise concern about global warming had given us all an eleventh hour reprieve from ruining the planet.
Remember the Gore themes: we are destroying the planet by gratuitous use of fossil fuels. Each of us must know his own “carbon footprint,” and adjust accordingly. But then we learned, in addition to the movies and books, Gore had created a carbon-exchange company, a modern version of medieval penance, in which for a fee Gore’s people would evaluate one’s environmental sins, and suggest how one could get right with the gods of the environment.
And on and on it went until in just a few years Gore’s net worth went from $2 million to nearly $100 million. But the additional rub was that Gore lived in an energy-gobbling big house, flew in carbon-polluting private jets, and seemed to benefit financially from the very policies he was lobbying governments to embrace. None of these facts had any effect on the media, the Nobel Prize committees, or his general public stature. Today he remains a liberal icon, not a hypocrite who seemed to live the carbon high-life he demonized so publicly.