September 4, 2007

Larry Craig’s Moral Quarrel

By: Meghan Keane

A Senatorial business card doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to. When Larry Craig flashed his at the officer arresting him for soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom in June, he got a dirty look and a disorderly conduct charge.

It used to be that powerful men could get away with murder, or at least all of the anonymous sexual liaisons they would like. But power and visibility have become liabilities in these affairs. Especially if you champion family values in your public life.

Senator Craig broke the law, but even if he were tapping his foot in his own home, the right to privacy won in the landmark gay rights case Lawrence vs. Texas would not apply to him. Gay republicans have become a rallying cry for gay marriage. And catching a member of the supposed party of morality screwing up has a large payoff.

It is a hazard of professing a traditional moral code in public that your private failings become fodder for those who confuse subscribing to an ideal with perfecting it.

Increasingly, the charge of hypocrisy has been leveled at Republicans who fail to meet their own standards. When professing a strict moral code in public life, the argument is already written against you when you fall short.

This trap befalls Republicans more often than Democrats not because they are more inclined toward sexual trysts and gambling debt, but because they are seen as foolish enough to actually care about these things.

The beauty of a hypocrisy charge is that it allows for taking the moral high ground without bringing morality into it at all. Hypocrisy charges today are simply a matter of contradiction. Gay Republicans caught in these scandals aren’t caught overstepping the moral consensus against homosexuality, but simply failing to meet their own standards.

In the 17th-century François de La Rochefoucauld wrote that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. But today, the opposite is true. It is much easier to eschew moralism in private life if you don’t make a fuss about these things publicly.

With the globalized recordings of the Internet and the endless market for tell all stories today, it is increasingly difficult for public figures to keep much of anything private indefinitely. But this increased transparency has not lessened the number of political sex scandals occurring in Washington.

Just as budding starlets cannot stop filming themselves en flagranté with future ex-boyfriends, politicians run like lemmings toward the precipice of sex scandal.

But the zero sum game of hypocrisy has led to a strange situation today, where the careers of some politicians are felled by publicized actions that would be inconsequential to others.

Mark Foley’s instant message sessions with a 16-year-old congressional page led to his resignation last year without any evidence of a physical relationship, whereas Democratic Massachusetts representative Gerry Studds’s 1983 sexual trysts with a 17 year old page, which got him censured in the House, did not affect him at the polls. Studds won reelection in his district until he retired in 1997.

Senator Craig resigned on Saturday. His speeches trying to dismiss the charges he pled guilty to, and his office’s embarrassing attempts to paint this as a “he said/he said disagreement” were more than unsuccessful. He lost the support of his colleagues, many constituents, and the general public. Mr. Craig was mocked across the blogosphere and unceremoniously dumped by the Republican Party.

But it is not his homosexuality so much as his denial of it that has put him into the headlines. And the continued outing of closeted Republicans plays into the vision of opponents of gay marriage simply acting out of self-hate and homophobia. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga wrote on Daily Koz LAST week: “To me, it’s pretty obvious that every conservative anti-gay extremist is gay. If you’re not gay, you don’t sit around obsessing over gay sex. If you sit around obsessing about gay sex, then you’re gay. It’s that simple.”

It would be a lot easier for the cause of gay marriage if all of the opponents of legalization were closet case homophobes, but this circular reasoning isn’t going to effect much change in the debate.

Just because individuals embarrassingly fail to live up to their own standards, it doesn’t mean that their supporters will discard their entire belief system, as those overeager to point out Republican hypocrisy might like. Gay minister Ted Haggard’s followers are still Evangelicals, Larry Craig’s constituents still opposed to gay marriage, and Bill Bennett’s wife still standing behind her casino loving man.

The steady stream of scandal shows that as long as there are politicians in Washington, there will be moronic abuses of authority. And while Republican sex scandals might help to get Democrats elected, the fact remains that even if every closeted Republican is forced into the light of day, there will still remain large swaths of people opposed to gay marriage.

There will also be those who resent attempts to out all homosexuals who promote, work under, or sit on the bus next to supposedly anti-gay politicians. And while the means of outing hypocrites for political gains may be justified by the ends for some, there is also the chance that this campaign will do what even the most homophobic Republican could not have dreamed of – get all the gays out of the Grand Old Party.

Larry Craig may have resigned, but people continue to strive for virtues they believe in, even if they and their elected officials fail to meet their standards. That’s the problem with focusing moral attacks on hypocrisy. It’s just he said/he said politics as usual.

Meghan Keane is a 2006 Phillips Fellow living in New York City.