In 2003, Dennis Hastert, then Speaker of the House and as yet unmasked as a child molester in his days as a High School wrestling coach, said
“But it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives and to help law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done.”
The news media has labeled this statement hypocrisy. Is it?
It is not.
Hypocrisy is a statement of moral or ethical standards that an individual proves by his own actions that he does not believe. The actions that supposedly mark Hastert as a hypocrite had already taken place when he made that statement in 2003. There is no reason to assume that he did not believe that sexual predators should be stopped and prevented from doing harm to others, even though he had been one, and indeed even if he was still inclined to molest young men in 2003.
This is another version of the flawed argument that a parent who smoked pot as a youth cannot credibly demand that his or her own child not do the same. What makes a hypocritical statement is insincerity and pretense at the time it is made, demonstrated by conduct in close temporal proximity to that statement.
Advocating an ethical standard that an individual himself has proven incapable of meeting in the past or even simultaneously with the statement does not necessarily make the statement dishonest. Is Bill Cosby a hypocrite? We really don’t know. I suspect that his advocacy of ethical values is genuine and sincere. Being conflicted is not the same as being hypocritical. Politicians can be gay, and still endorse discrimination against gays.
Inconsistencies between past statements and conduct the took place either before the statement or after also does not support an accusation of hypocrisy. Joe Biden should be able to state that presidential Supreme Court nominees shouldn’t be confirmed when the election of a new President looms, and then maintain the opposite years later without being accused of hypocrisy. Changing one’s position, flip-flopping or caving to expediency are still not hypocrisy. If Bill Clinton said that he believes a President shouldn’t dishonor his high office, is that hypocritical? No. It would take a lot of gall to be sure, but it isn’t necessarily hypocritical: maybe he’s learned his lesson.
When former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry lectured students about avoiding drugs, then smoked crack with an old girl friend on a whim, that was hypocrisy. When Hillary Clinton says, as she has, “No one is too big to jail” while using all of her influence and status to avoid the legal consequences of her State Department e-mail maneuvers, that can fairly be called hypocrisy. When Barack Obama said last week that the white House would not attempt to influence the Justice Department’s decision whether to charge Hillary, and then in the same interview said…
“She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy. What I also know is that there’s classified and then there’s classified. There’s stuff that is really top secret top secret, and then there’s stuff that is being presented to the president, the secretary of state, you may not want going out over the wire…I continue to believe she has not jeopardized America’s national security. There’s a carelessness in terms of managing emails that she has owned and she recognizes. But I also think it is important to keep this in perspective.”
…that was spectacular hypocrisy, with a dash of arrogance for flavor. The President of the United States opining on the innocence of an individual under investigation is by definition exerting influence on the Justice Department headed by an individual who reports to him.
There are many circumstances that would make Hastert’s 2003 get-tough statement about child abuse completely sincere. He no longer regarded himself as a current abuser. Maybe he rationalized that he never was an abuser. He may have wished that he had been apprehended and stopped after his first episode, long ago. He certainly could believe that it was important to stop predators before they struck, and he knew better than most whether serial predators could be trusted to be released from jail.
Hypocrisy exists when an individual’s statement of values and the conduct that contradicts that statement occurs nearly simultaneously. The news media likes to play “gotcha!” with past inconsistent statements, and they certainly are worth considering in assessing integrity, past judgment and reliability. “Hypocrisy” is regularly misused, however.
Oh, I almost forgot: If anyone can find a non-conservative news source that flagged President Obama’s hypocritical statement regarding Hillary’s e-mails, please link it in the comments. I haven’t been able to find one.