If Senator Larry Craig opposed gay rights and said hostile things about gays while occasionally soliciting gay sex, he was hypocritical. Hypocrisy is one of the easiest faults to prove, but it is not one of the worst faults, especially in a leader.
Hypocrisy is easy to establish, once the facts are out, because it involves a contradiction between the person’s statements and his actions. (Likewise, lies are evident when a person’s statements contradict what he knows or believes.) You can have very few moral commitments and very little knowledge of issues, and yet detect other people’s hypocrisy.
But what if Larry Craig were completely heterosexual and totally faithful to his wife, yet anti-gay? In my view, his position would then reflect injustice and intolerance. These are worse faults than hypocrisy; they have far more serious consequences. But many Americans are uncomfortable about charging anyone with injustice. That’s because: (1) the charge is controversial, given that definitions of justice vary; (2) the accusation reflects deep moral commitments, which are incompatible with moral relativism or skepticism; and (3) the claim requires knowledge of issues and policies. The issue of gay rights happens to be relatively easy to understand, but I would argue that Senator Craig’s votes on economic policy display equally serious injustice. To make that claim, I have to follow politics fairly closely and develop strong moral commitments.
Thus I think that Americans who are disconnected from politics and issues tend to jump on evidence of hypocrisy as if it were very momentous (and interesting) news, whereas far worse faults are ignored.
(It’s not even crystal-clear that Larry Craig is a hypocrite, because one could oppose certain rights for gays and yet be gay or bisexual, without a contradiction. If Craig is a hypocrite, it’s not because of his policy positions but because he falsely denies being gay himself–or so his accusers claim. I happen to feel considerable sympathy for a gay person who hides his orientation, given the general climate of intolerance and the tendency of police to entrap gay men. But hypocrisy, while not the worst moral fault, is wrong. The wrongness, it seems to me, lies in the failure to treat other people as responsible and rational agents who can make decisions on the basis of facts. Instead, the hypocrite feels it necessary to deceive in order to get the results he wants. This is manipulative; it is using someone else as a means to one’s ends, not as an end in himself. But of course there are many forms of political manipulation that do not involve hypocrisy–for example, fear-mongering and exaggeration.)