Shamelessness is worse than hypocrisy

“Hypocrisy,” noted the French writer La Rochefoucauld, “is a tribute vice pays to virtue.” In political life, charges of hypocrisy are commonplace; yet there, of all places, hypocrisy should be much preferred to the most common alternative, which is sheer shamelessness.

Compare, for example, the sordid tales of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Craig, as everyone knows, was caught misbehaving in a restroom in the Minneapolis airport. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct; but it’s universally assumed his real crime was an unsuccessful attempt to engage in homosexual relations in a public place.

The story of Craig’s arrest and subsequent guilty plea occasioned a veritable tsunami of horror and disgust among conservatives. He announced his resignation last Saturday.

Craig’s political career is over. Meanwhile, Giuliani is the current front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. But in what sense has Craig’s behavior been worse than that of the self-anointed Saint of 9/11?

Craig, it seems, has lived his life in the grip of what he sees as a shameful desire to have sex with men. (It’s somewhat inaccurate to refer to Craig as “gay,” since people who identify themselves as such generally don’t consider their sexual desires shameful.)

Craig sees his deepest sexual desires as shameful because he subscribes to a moral code in which homosexual relations are considered inherently immoral. This has left him with three choices: he could completely repress his deepest sexual desires; he could indulge them, but try to keep his behavior secret; or he could openly acknowledge them and come out of the closet.

Those who share Craig’s moral code will agree that the first course would have been best; but, given that this turned out to be impossible, would it have been better for the senior senator from Idaho to engage in furtive, shame-ridden liaisons, or, by contrast, to “come out” and embrace a new identity as a gay man?

It seems the cultural conservatives who are most horrified by Craig’s behavior, and who make up much of the activist base of the contemporary GOP, would agree that it’s better for someone like Craig to stay in the closet, if the alternative is for him to treat their moral code with open contempt.

Which brings us to the current darling of the GOP presidential nomination ball. Giuliani has been married three times, yet his willingness to indulge in what historians of marriage refer to as “serial monogamy” is by no means the most colorful chapter in The Erotic Adventures of Rudy.

Giuliani, after all, is a man who literally held a press conference to inform Donna Hanover, his second wife and the mother of his children, that he was dumping her for his then-mistress. Hanover eventually had to try to get a court order to keep her husband from bringing his mistress into the house in which Hanover and the children still lived.

This was the culmination of several years of increasingly scandalous behavior, which included a barely hidden affair with one of his own employees and marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade with his mistress of the moment — an act that one New York columnist compared to “groping in the window at Macy’s.”

Stay classy, Rudy. Keep using the phrase “9/11” in every other sentence, and maybe your supporters will forget that they’re supposed to consider a man who shamelessly flaunts his adulterous affairs to be far more reprehensible than someone who tries desperately to hide his failure to live up to their moral code.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)