CONSERVATIVES HAVE BEEN HAVING a lot of fun with the Dick Morris affair. And far be it from me to be a spoilsport. It's hard to top a story with toe- sucking! prostitutes! and a love -- or is it lust? -- child! (Although Roger Stone has managed to top it with a story that makes Morris's sex life look positively wholesome. These consultant types are so competitive.) And Republicans have been able to score a few political points about the company the Clintons have kept and their manifest lack of embarrassment about it.

But conservatives ought to be careful in exploiting the Morris scandal, lest they reinforce an idea that is typically used to their detriment: the notion that hypocrisy -- in this case, Morris's deft positioning of President Clinton as a family-values candidate while conducting an affair with the founder of A Woman's Personal Touch cleaning service -- discredits the ideas associated with a hypocritical purveyor.

Accusations of hypocrisy have become a leitmotif of political coverage. Opponents of the Defense of Marriage Act pointed with glee to the thrice- married Bob Barr's leading role in pushing it. Divorces like Rush Limbaugh, Bob Dole, and Ronald Reagan have been judged hypocrites for defending "family values." Bob Packwood's sexual harassment was widely held -- by his ex-wife, among others -- to be a betrayal of his feminist record. (He was arguably being a perfectly consistent sexual liberal, but that's a topic for another day.) Politicians who admit to having inhaled are taken to lack the moral standing to take a tough line on illegal drugs.

These examples suggest why the hypocrisy standard typically works to undermine conservatives -- or, as in Morris's case, non-conservatives who are pushing the political debate to the right. It is, in effect, a political weapon deployed solely against those who seek to raise public standards of morality. When Hugh Hefner moved out of the Playboy mansion the better to bring up his two young sons, nobody accused him of not living down to his principles. And Morris could have avoided the charge of hypocrisy had he frankly advocated indulgent social policies. Even in policy areas not explicitly involving morals, the hypocrisy standard can be a device for filtering non-liberal policy ideas out of public discussion. For instance, people who haven't served in the military are criticized if they favor strong defense and foreign policies -- but anyone can advocate dovishness.

Now, if only saints could defend virtue, virtue would never have a chance. If conservatives acquiesce in liberals' definition of hypocrisy as the only private sin that deserves public censure, they will have politically neutered themselves.

Besides, hypocrisy serves an important social function. If a public standard of moral conduct is to have any force at all, inevitably some people who believe in that standard will sometimes fail to meet it. For a society to be both decent and tolerable requires a healthy amount of hypocrisy -- as it requires judgmental gossip, which is also less than ideal but better than the alternative of moral indifference. If a society doesn't want to see many of its members fall short of its moral standards, it can only have minimal or nonexistent standards. Which is, of course, the direction in which modern liberalism pushes America.

It is surely worse to profess what one does not really believe than it is not to live up to an ideal in which one does believe. Yet journalistic references to hypocrisy tend to lump the two together. This practice is, I think, born not just of cynicism but of the failure of the liberal imagination. And here we come to the heart of the matter. Social and cultural liberals, including most reporters, have a hard time picturing what a conservative moral order would look like. When Dan Quayle was asked what he would do if he had a daughter who had an abortion, some reporters seemed genuinely to find it "inconsistent" for him not to have declared his willingness to kick her out of his house into the snow. People who don't believe in sin apparently don't believe in forgiveness either. Nor, ultimately, can they believe in human weakness, which is why they regard discrepancies between conviction and conduct as harshly as they do. Conservatives ought to have a better understanding of human nature.

No discussion of hypocrisy would be complete without a reference to La Rochefoucauld's great line that it's the tribute that vice pays to virtue. If there's going to be vice -- as of course there is -- then better that it pay tribute to virtue than not. Such tribute is the closest some of us get to the real thing.

Ramesh Ponnuru is National Review's national reporter.

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