Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Whatever happened to the sin of hypocrisy?

Whenever a conservative gets caught in an embarrassing story - liberals are appalled at hypocrisy much more than the sin itself. As Jonah Goldberg wrote in the wake of the Larry Craig story,
Since most on the Left think Craig’s alleged sexual liaisons are perfectly benign, they shouldn’t object. “Who are we to judge?” and all that. Rather, the Left claims it hates Craig’s hypocrisy, not his behavior.

From Rush Limbaugh’s drug use to Bill Bennett’s gambling to the long list of Republican politicians who’ve thrown a few earmarks and riders into their marriage vows, the Left has chosen to denounce the perceived hypocrisy rather than the behavior. The indictment sometimes loses its punch in the details. Bennett never inveighed against gambling, for example.

But that misses the point. The Left claims to hate “moralizers.” So any failure to live like Jesus while telling others to follow his example is an outrage, even the defining challenge of our lives. (In 2005, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean pledged, “I will use whatever position I have in order to root out hypocrisy.”)
Liberals have an easier time of it because they don't criticize such activities. That is certainly one method of avoiding the sin of hypocrisy. Goldberg identifies another.
But the Left has another solution. Under its system, you can still be a moralizer. You can still tell people what to do and how to live. And, best of all, you can still fall short of your ideals personally while guiltlessly trying to use government to impose your moral vision on others. All you have to do is become a liberal moralizer.

Once you become a liberal, you can wax eloquent on the glories of the public schools while sending your kids to private school. You can wax prolix about the greedy rich while making a fortune on the side. You can even use the government to impose your values willy-nilly, from racial quotas and confiscatory tax rates to draconian environmental policies and sex-ed for grade-schoolers — all of which will paid for in part by people who disagree with you.
That is the route that Barack Obama has chosen. He projects himself as a new kind of politician - one who will clean out the temples of greed and self-interest in Washington, D.C. All well and good. But what about the stain of hypocrisy? It reared its ugly head this weekend as the story of one of the guys in charge of his search for vice president Jim Johnson's questionable below-market mortgage from Countrywide, the mortgage company that Barack Obama has so enjoyed demonizing.
A former CEO of mortgage financing giant Fannie Mae, Mr. Johnson is now vetting Vice Presidential candidates for Mr. Obama. But he is also a textbook case for poor disclosure as regulators sifted through the wreckage of Fannie's $10 billion accounting scandal. Despite an exhaustive federal inquiry, Mr. Johnson managed to avoid disclosing one very special perk: below-market interest-rate mortgages from Countrywide Financial, arranged by Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo. Journal reporters Glenn Simpson and James Hagerty broke the story this weekend.

Fannie Mae tells us that Mr. Johnson did not inform the company's board of these sweetheart mortgage deals, nor did his CEO successor Franklin Raines, who also received such loans. We can understand why. Fannie bought mortgages from loan originator Countrywide, and then packaged them into securities for sale or kept the loans and profited from the interest. Mr. Mozilo told Dow Jones in 1995 that he was "working very closely . . . with Jim Johnson of Fannie Mae to come up with a rational method of making the process more efficient by the use of credit scoring."

Since Fannie was buying Countrywide's loans, under terms set by Mr. Johnson and later Mr. Raines – or by people in their employ – the fact that Fannie's CEO had a separate personal financial relationship with Countrywide was an obvious conflict of interest. The company's code of conduct required prior approval of such arrangements. Neither Mr. Johnson nor Mr. Raines sought such approval, according to Fannie.
When questioned on this clear case of hypocrisy plus Eric Holder's role in Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, Barack Obama had a rather unique defense.
I am not vetting my VP Search Committee for their mortgages. You’re going to have to direct – it becomes sort of a – this is a game that can be played – everybody, who is tangentially related to our campaign, I think, is going to have a whole host of relationships. I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters. I mean at some point, we just asked people to do their assignments. Jim Johnson has a very discrete task, as does Eric Holder, and that is simply to gather up information about potential vice presidential candidates. They’re performing that job well. It’s a volunteer, unpaid position. And they’re giving me information, and I will then exercise judgment in terms of who I want to select as a vice presidential candidate. So these aren’t folks who are working for me, they’re not people who I have assigned to a particular job in a future administration. And ultimately, my assumption is that this is a discrete task that they are going to be performing for me over the next two months.
So two of the guys who are advising him on the most important decision he will make as a candidate aren't working for him? That's a rather Clintonian parsing of words for Mr. New Sort of Politician, isn't it?

I suppose Obama thinks that journalists will swallow all this and not remember or look up the sort of things that Obama had said about Countrywide.
The company's CEO, Angelo Mozilo, had set up a very special loan program for his high-powered pals. Johnson had named Mozilo to Fannie Mae's national advisory committee more than a decade ago and they maintained a cozy friendship.

Mozilo also happens to be one of Obama's fattest targets in his frequent broadsides against the demons of the mortgage industry. Obama likened Mozilo to a virus in March: "These are the people who are responsible for infecting the economy and helping to create a home foreclosure crisis." Channeling Jesse Jackson, Obama further chided: "These executives crossed the line to boost their bottom line." During the battle with Hillary, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was dispatched to the cable TV airwaves to inveigh: "If we're really going to crack down on the practices that caused the credit and housing crises, we're going to need a leader who doesn't owe these industries any favors." And so on.

If it turns out that there is nothing illegal about Jim Johnson's mortgage, then personally I am not all that upset about his work to pick a vice presidential candidate for Obama. I think we do all too much of this gotcha game of trying to draw the dots to connect someone involved in business or lobbying to politicians. If we keep this up, no one who has ever been a lobbyist or worked in private industry will ever be able to work in public service. John McCain is just as guilty in this regard. But don't try to play the game of being purer than every other politician and then call it a distraction when someone "working" for you is found to be a little less pure than your holy standards. If Obama hadn't portrayed himself as the pure protector of the people, this wouldn't be much of a story. And it probably won't echo much longer during the campaign unless something else about Jim Johnson or Eric Holder comes out. People aren't going to vote or not vote for someone based on whom he picked to help him find a vice president. The only people who will really care about this story are those who wouldn't vote for Obama in the first place. However, it would be a relief if such stories as this stopped both Obama and McCain from pretending to be so much more honorable than any other politician. Then they wouldn't get caught up by that old sin of hypocrisy.