Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Is Gingrich a Hypocrite? Should We Care? Some Reflections on Hypocrisy

It's a bit of an understatement to say that I’m not a fan of Newt Gingrich. But I’ll confess to feeling a pang of sympathy for him when I read about his recent exchange with Univision correspondent Jorge Ramos.

In that exchange, Ramos pushed Gingrich on the matter of Gingrich’s supposed hypocrisy, something Gingrich has been relentlessly accused of—by various media pundits and bloggers, students, academics, surfers, Chinese acrobats, perhaps a few dogs. The primary basis for the charge is that Gingrich led the charge against President Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinski sex scandal…while he was himself energetically pursuing his own extramarital affair. These hypocrisy accusations have gotten new life recently from the revelation—in an interview with Gingrich’s second wife—that around the time of the Lewinski scandal Newt approached his wife about an “open marriage,” presumably so that he wouldn’t have to give up either woman.

Gingrich deflected efforts at the South Carolina debate to confront him about his infidelities and supposed hypocrisy—by attacking those who would focus on such irrelevant concerns. Ramos, however, had more luck in engaging Gingrich on the issue last week at a forum in Florida. But before the charge of hypocrisy could even be leveled, Gingrich quickly stressed that his criticisms of Clinton weren’t about the affair as such, but about Clinton perjuring himself under oath.

Ramos doggedly pressed on with his line of questioning as if Gingrich hadn’t made this distinction. Three times, in fact, Ramos pushed the hypocrisy charge as Gingrich continued stressing that what he targeted Clinton for was not his infidelities but his felony perjury—a crime Gingrich stressed he had not committed.

Ramos essentially ignored the distinction Gingrich was making. The third time Ramos ignored Gingrich—saying that “people think that’s hypocritical to criticize President Clinton for doing the same thing that you were doing at the same time”—Gingrich snapped back with, “Okay, there is some place there where there’s a mental synapse missing.”

By that point, I wanted to say to Ramos the same damned thing.

Here’s the point: It is not hypocritical for someone with chronic infidelity problems to push for the impeachment of a sitting President if the reason is that the President committed felony perjury. To plow ahead as Ramos did, in the face of Gingrich’s explicit assertion that Clinton’s infidelity was not the issue—well, at best it seems bullheaded and evasive.

And Ramos is hardly alone. Gingrich has, essentially, offered two rebuttals to the argument that Ramos and others have been making: First of all there's the pre-emptive rebuttal, which he offered at the South Carolina debate: It doesn’t matter, it’s a distraction from the real issues that should define a campaign. Secondly, there's the substantive rebuttal offered to Ramos: He wasn’t guilty of hypocrisy in any event.

You don’t do anyone a service by simply ignoring these rebuttals and plowing ahead with the hypocrisy charge as if Gingrich had never opened his mouth.

So: Is Gingrich a hypocrite? And does it matter?

As to the second question, it’s important to be clear about something. Sometimes what hypocrites have to say is exactly right. If a pot calls the kettle black…well, if the kettle is black, then the pot got it right. That you’re being hypocritical doesn’t mean you’re wrong. So if there's a problem with hypocrisy, it isn't that it falsifies what the hypocrite is saying.

In fact, the ubiquity of human shortcomings means that anyone who preaches against moral failings--especially ones that involve falling prey to temptation--is bound to be a pot calling the kettle black. Does that mean no one should exhort us to resist various temptations on pain of hypocrisy?

Hardly. Real hypocrisy is more than just failing to live as you preach. Falling short of your own moral ideals isn't hypocrisy. It's humanity. Real hypocrisy involves a kind of self-righteousness in relation to what one is preaching against--a self-righteousness that invites others to abhor "those" people, people against whom the hypocrite hopes to present him- or herself in a favorable light. In other words, hypocrisy involves explicitly expressing and encouraging harsh judgments, punitive responses, and moral outrage against others who have behaved in a certain way—while seeking to avoid similar judgment in one’s own case (even though one has done the same sort of thing). In another variant, it involves making harsh judgments of people with whom one doesn't identify (such as candidates one doesn't like, or members of a different religion) while shielding from such judgment those with whom one identifies (even if they're guilty of the same thing.

Now suppose what you are preaching against is something you yourself have done in the past—but you explicitly disavow and condemn your past actions now. If, in fact, you really are reformed and you really don’t do that sort of thing anymore, we wouldn’t call you a hypocrite. Maybe we should call you a “remorseful moralizer” (there may be something troubling about moralizing in general, but not every case of moralizing is necessarily hypocrisy).

But suppose you adopt the attitude of a remorseful moralizer as a strategy for deflecting condemnation from the current you--in effect, trying to restrict that condemnation to the "past" you. Suppose you’re still just as bad as you ever were. Suppose you’re still a shameless womanizer with pathological infidelity problems—a “fornicator,” for short. You want to condemn fornication without tarring yourself (because you see an advantage to be gained from doing that), but there’s no hiding from your past fornication. Everyone knows about it. In that case, you might pose as a remorseful moralizer even though you’re not one. Instead, you’re a hypocrite.

And this example helps reveal why hypocrisy matters. Hypocrisy essentially involves misrepresentation. And it’s misrepresentation for a purpose—the purpose being to enjoy the benefits (whatever they might be) that come from condemning others while avoiding the costs of being condemned oneself. It is, in short, a kind of self-serving deception. A habitual hypocrite is, put bluntly, a selfish liar.

Of course, no one is fully defined by hypocrisy—no one is simply a hypocrite. But for some people, the propensity for hypocrisy is so much a part of their character that there is reason for us to be concerned about how extensively self-serving deceptiveness might shape their behavior (in, say, political office). On that level, the question of whether a person is guilty of hypocrisy—and how habitually—is indeed relevant in a Presidential candidate.

So: Is Gingrich a hypocrite? On this point, it’s important to remember that when Gingrich takes a strong stand on the campaign trail for “family values,” you can’t paint Gingrich as a hypocrite simply by dredging up past misdeeds—especially if he’s gone on record expressing remorse. Gingrich is putting himself out there as a remorseful moralizer. The question is whether this is an honest representation, or whether he is posing. It's only in the latter case that he's being hypocritical.

Along similar lines, the fact that Gingrich at one time sought an “open marriage” does not as such render hypocritical his current claims that same-sex marriage should be rejected because it violates the traditional “one-man/one-woman” model of marriage. After all, Gingrich might have undergone a profound change of heart. He might now look upon his past desire for an open marriage with horror. He might be deeply committed to the one-man/one-woman model now, even if he wasn’t then. In that case, he wouldn’t be a hypocrite—even though, of course, he’d still be deeply wrong in opposing marriage equality (and that’s a reason not to vote for him whether he’s a hypocrite or not).

Another thing to keep in mind: Even if Gingrich used to be a hypocrite, it doesn’t mean he is still a hypocrite. But a past legacy of hypocrisy is certainly admissible as evidence when trying to decide whether someone is a hypocrite now. Entrenched habits of character being hard to break, in the absence of clear evidence of character transformation it is often wise to be skeptical of someone who says, “But I’ve changed!” You don't go back to a wife-beater just on their say-so that they're no longer abusive. Likewise, you might not want to re-elect a chronic self-serving liar without clear evidence of a transformation.

So, in deciding whether Gingrich is hypocrite now, it will be helpful to take seriously his track record. But that goal is not served when people like Ramos throw out the hypocrisy label without considering the kinds of objections Gingrich offers. Taking a track recond seriously means honestly assessing it, which isn't served by ignoring objections. More significantly, Ramos's approach may lead many to pre-emptively dismiss the hypocrisy charge as nothing but groundless name-calling.

For a hypocrisy charge to be warranted, you have to demonstrate a conflict between what someone was preaching at a given time and what the person was doing at that time. And so, if Gingrich insists that in pushing for Clinton’s impeachment, it was all about perjury rather than infidelity, an astute journalist wouldn’t just keep plowing ahead with the same unmodified argument.

Suppose, however, that while Gingrich pursued impeachment based on the perjury charges (because those are the charges that would stick legally), he knew that the infidelity itself was what would have the most traction with the public—and so engaged in and encouraged moral grandstanding about Clinton's failures of moral character displayed by his sexual dalliances. If Gingrich had done that during the whole Monica Lewinski affair, he would have been deeply hypocritical then and a liar now.

So, did Gingrich engage in moral grandstanding about Clinton’s infidelity during the Monica Lewinski affair? Is that something he’s deceptively leaving out now, in order to avoid the hypocrisy charge? If so, that speaks to an ongoing pattern of deception and not just a past tendency towards hypocrisy. To be honest, my memory of those events is sufficiently hazy that while it seems to me that Gingrich did engage in such grandstanding, I can't swear to it. But a journalist has the resources to very readily determine the answer.

Speaking of lying, one could quite convincingly argue that no small measure of hypocrisy is displayed in taking a strong, self-righteous stand against lying under oath if, for example, you’ve just lied multiple times to the Congressional ethics committee in an attempt to get ethics violation charges against you dismissed. If you’ve been recently fined a whopping $300,000 for ethics violations that include deliberate deception aimed at deflecting an investigation of misconduct, there may be something hypocritical about leading the charge against someone else for doing the same sort of thing.

Maybe Gingrich can make a distinction here. I suppose, strictly speaking, lying your way out of an affair in a legal deposition isn’t exactly the same thing as lying your way out of an ethics violation in letters to the Congressional ethics committee. Legally, the two are different. Can hypocrisy concerns be derailed by appeal to such legal differences?

And for how long has the rhetoric of conservative “family values” shaped his political career? Was his rhetoric very much like it is now…back when he was cheating on his wives, divorcing them to marry different ones, asking for open marriages? If so, there is a pattern of hypocrisy here—and that pattern may lead us to justifiably ask whether anything has changed, whether his current thumping for family values is any less hypocritical today.

Again, my memory tells me that Gingrich has been thumping for family values in much the way he does now for a long while--but, again, a clear record of this (of the sort journalists could readily provide) would be much more helpful in substantiating hypocrisy charges that a bullheaded line of questioning that is so oblivious to Gingrich's rebuttal that even someone with no political sympathy for Newt wants to cheer when Newt spits a quip about missing synapses.

One final remark: Whether or not Gingrich is a hypocrite, anyone who has insisted of other politicians that their private sexual lives are highly relevant to assessing their suitability for political life would be courting hypocrisy if they treated Gingrich's blatant record of sexual infidelity and disregard for marital vows as politically irrelevant.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It seems to me there is a sense in which Gingrich is undeniably a hypocrite. He admits (now) to some serious moral transgressions. Repentance is great, but it seems to me that a person who knows how much he has sinned in the past ought to be a little less self-righteous in the present when commenting on other people's alleged moral transgressions. It seems to me this person would recognize the other sinners as fellow travelers so to speak--they are failing morally the same as I did. Gingrich it seems to me decidedly *doesn't* show any signs of this kind of compassion. He gives himself a break that he doesn't give to other people, it seems to me.

  3. Hi Eric,

    There is another side to this coin: can a politician really hope to be elected without misrepresenting him/herself to some degree? To a large extent, they are acting out a role, projecting an image that has often very little to do with reality.

    There are simply things they can't do and opinions they can't have. For example, I understand that in the US a politician that would strongly criticize an action by the United States or show indifference to religion would be quickly disqualified. And up here we, for sure, have our own brand of political silliness, different but no more rational.

    I am not being cynical but doesn't all this make some form of misrepresentation or hypocrisy almost necessary?

  4. Keith--Good point. It may be that the self-righteous dimension of hypocrisy deserves a bit more attention. If an unwarranted self-righteousness with respect to some kind of wrongdoing is given more prominence in our understanding of hypocrisy, then the remorseful moralizer could still be a hypocrite even if he/she isn't currently guilty of the wrongdoing.

  5. JP--You're right that the political process seems to drive those who seek elected office to misrepresent who they are in various ways. So realistically what the electorate has to focus on is the issue of DEGREE. Is the politician reluctantly compromising his/her integrity a bit (and losing sleep over it) for the sake of political necessity, or does the politician not have any integrity to compromise?

  6. JP is right about politicians, I think. In the interest of fairness (since I voted for the man and I plan to vote for him again) I've had this nagging problem with Obama wrt his famous Speech about Talking about Race in America (the one he made in response to the Jeremiah Wright flap). Obama made a great speech about how important it is for Americans to be able to talk honestly about racial issues without fearing condemnation for being so racist and all. This speech was creditted with defusing the whole Wright issue, and Obama never brought the subject up again. It's almost as if the speech was just cheap damage control, not a serious call for dialog:-(

  7. But when it comes to the hypocrisy of self righteousness, Gingrich strikes me as being particularly adept at it. Gingrich seems to me to be particularly full throated in his condemnation of other people for failing morally, rhetorically oblivious to his admissions of his own moral failings. All of us suffer from this ailment, I think, (i'm probably doing it right now:-) but Gingrich amazes me with his gall.