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Why Hypocrisy Is The Least Of Mark Sanford's Sins

Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His latest book is  The Future of Liberalism (Knopf, 2009).

Charging Mark Sanford and his fellow roaming Republicans with hypocrisy is a story that writes itself. Yes Democrats, the most conspicuous being John Edwards, do these kinds of things too. But Democrats, or so my friends and colleagues tell me, have not made conventional sexual morality their path to power. Republican adulterers therefore have more to answer than those across the aisle: when harboring gay desire themselves while curtailing the civil liberties of homosexuals, for example, or when proclaiming the need for strong nuclear families while penalizing families broken by poverty. They hoisted the petard on which they hang and it is only justice that they hang there.

Of all those accused of such hypocrisy, Sanford certainly stands out. His holier-than-thou calls for Bill Clinton to resign during the Lewinsky era have rightly come back to haunt him, especially given his decision, at least so far, not to take his own advice and step down immediately as South Carolina's governor. Clearly this is a man whose Bible study class passed over that business of throwing first stones.

The trouble with the hypocrisy charge, however, is that it is so easy to make that it sucks the air out of more serious matters. As vices go, hypocrisy has never been among the worst. Without hypocrisy not only would diplomacy be impossible but so would all forms of workable politics. People who say one thing and do another, especially when what they say is absurd, are morally preferable to people who do what they say. Charges of hypocrisy rarely stick. We are more likely to wink at hypocrisy than to condemn it.

Even more, we frequently, and rightly, admire hypocrisy. Sanford was simply doing his political business when he called on Clinton to resign; the constituents of his very conservative district during his years in Congress would have been disappointed had he not. I, for one, take great pleasure in the fact that we have a Democratic president who said one thing during his campaign for office and is now saying quite different things when in office; the party I prefer needs leaders practiced in the wilier political arts. Certainly the other party has them aplenty

Mark Sanford should be hounded out of office for cheating on his wife; in breaking his vow to her, her undermined his vow to the people he governs. (As someone who has never forgiven Bill Clinton for his escapades, I am not one of those who believe that the private lives of public figures are none of our business). He proved his inability to hold his office for years by leaving it for a week. His grandstanding efforts to "refuse" federal stimulus money have had serious policy consequences for his state, especially for the poor and the vulnerable. His record as governor, in fact, has been so bad that if he can have the national debate around his performance reduced to his trip to Argentina, he will be better off. True, his chances of winning the Republican nomination seem all but gone, but one never knows what a copious flow of confessional tears might achieve for him.

The problems with Sanford lie elsewhere. He is by all accounts a somewhat typical product of what the Republican Party's leadership selection process produces: a political extremist, a grandstander, a policy ignoramus, and a man of amazingly inflated self-importance. Those, to me, are vices. Hypocrisy pales in comparison to them.

--Alan Wolfe