It’s not the hypocrisy, stupid

If Eliot Spitzer, New York’s soon-to-be ex-governor, hadn’t prosecuted prostitution rings, would he have been able to cling to office? One might think so given the prominence in accounts of his downfall of the H-word -- hypocrisy.

As the Kansas City Star put it in a representative editorial: “Public officials who hold others to high standards had better claim the same lofty principles for themselves. Charges that Spitzer spent thousands of dollars to hire at least one high-priced prostitute are breathtaking for the hypocrisy that they suggest.”

The implication is that if Spitzer had conformed his public performance as a prosecutor to his private peccadilloes, his critics would have been deprived of their most lethal argument -- that he was a “whited sepulcher ... full of all uncleanness.” That is the picturesque accusation leveled by Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees, and by my mother against a supposedly philandering priest who had lectured her in the confessional about losing patience with her six children.

The “It’s the hypocrisy, stupid!” mantra is resonating even in the Great White North. A cliche-clotted editorial in the Sault (Ontario) Star intones: “Once again we are treated to the spectacle of a politician being hoisted by his own petard. This time the action takes place south of the border in the State of New York where Governor Eliot Spitzer has been caught with his pants down.” Or as Canadian rocker Neil Young put it in “American Dream”:

Reporters crowd around your house.

Going through your garbage like a pack of hounds

Speculating what they may find out,

It don’t matter now, you’re all washed up.

Spitzer is washed up, and no doubt the spectacle of a prostitution fighting prosecutor patronizing a prostitute provides a special frisson (not to mention an orgy of alliteration). But think about it: Spitzer’s failing wasn’t that he set himself up for a fall by going after an illegal enterprise of the kind he would later subsidize; it was that he flouted the law in a way that jeopardized not just his reputation but his hold on public office. That would have been problematic even if he had “immunized” himself by going easy on prostitution as a prosecutor.

Hypocrisy has always struck me as an exaggerated evil. At least a hypocrite is recognizing that he’s doing wrong. Or, as Francois de La Rochefoucauld famously put it, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” More to the point, by definition, a politician who is covertly engaging in wrongdoing will oppose wrongdoing in his official capacity or he’d better look for other work. I’d want a legislator to vote for tough penalties against, say, kidnapping, even if he was incubating a plan to kidnap someone during the election recess.

The hypocrisy theory gets its most strenuous workout in the argument that closeted gay politicians should be outed if, and only if, they “vote against their community,” as Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) supposedly did in voting against same-sex marriage. But where’s the hypocrisy? Craig didn’t cast those votes and then try to marry another man. (In fact, he has claimed that, despite that business in the men’s room in Minneapolis, “I am not gay. I never have been gay.”) Anyway, as liberals argue when defending Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, a legislator sometimes sees his or her duty as reflecting his constituents’ preferences, not his own. Not every representative is Edmund Burke.

More broadly, the problem with the hypocrisy argument is that most of us are hypocrites, if hypocrisy is defined as failing to live up to standards of behavior we endorse in the abstract. Granted, as Shakespeare showed in “Measure for Measure” and Spitzer showed on CNN, the downfall of a moralistic prig is great theater. But in the moral calculus, it’s not the hypocrisy, stupid; it’s the behavior that exposes it.

Michael McGough is The Times’ senior editorial writer. Respond at opinionla@