Public moralizers think morality is for everyone else

Published: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 10:18 p.m.
Back when he was House majority leader - before he lost that post to indictment in a Texas political scandal - Tom DeLay was among the chief moralizers of American politics.
He was a grand high potentate of the ''culture of life'' crowd that championed intervening in the tragic case of Terri Schiavo. He vigorously opposed abortion. He could be counted on to whip up a frenzy against gay marriage.
Yet DeLay's sense of morality was never troubled by the business practices of one of his ''closest and dearest friends,'' Jack Abramoff, who bilked Indian tribes, set up sham enterprises and bought the votes of powerful congressmen.
Indeed, DeLay was among those on whom Abramoff, a highly paid Capitol Hill lobbyist, lavished expensive gifts. As just one example, Abramoff paid for a pricey golf excursion for DeLay and his wife to Scotland.
Nor was morality any brake for political consultant Ralph Reed, former cherub-in-chief for the Christian Coalition, now a candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia.
Reed has a longstanding public record of conservative religious views, and he used that record to promote his consulting practice to conservative religious groups. But that didn't stop him from working with Abramoff to promote gambling interests, including pushing for an online gaming company.
Politics has always been a dirty business, prone to a disproportionate share of hypocrisy, back-stabbing and dissembling - even more than can be commonly found in corporate boardrooms.
Still, the level of hypocrisy exposed by the Abramoff scandal is hall of fame stuff - the sort of outsized arrogance and disregard for law and decency that make it a benchmark against which other scandals will be measured for decades to come. In a strictly amoral universe, Abramoff and his cronies would deserve medals for sheer gall.
In a moral universe, the one Americans purport to inhabit, defrauding Indian tribes and ripping off banks ought to be grounds for pariah-dom. Yet the growing list of accusations against Abramoff drew barely a whimper of complaint from Republicans, who were overwhelmingly the recipients of his largesse, until he pleaded guilty.
(While a few Democrats were among those who received money from Abramoff, most of it naturally went to Republicans, since they control the White House and both houses of Congress. If you want to drive the train, you go see the engineer, not the loser in the caboose.) Last week, Abramoff pleaded guilty to several felony counts in a sweeping federal corruption case. His admission prompted a race among prominent officeholders to see who could give away the most Abramoff-tainted money to charities.
He has given millions in campaign contributions to politicians, mostly Republicans, over the years. Belatedly, the White House condemned him in harsh terms, calling his practices ''outrageous.'' Bush and DeLay, among others, gave away campaign donations they had received from Abramoff. (DeLay remains in Congress, awaiting his trial.) But surely Abramoff's allies - especially DeLay - aren't just now coming to suspect that he was up to no good. DeLay traveled with Abramoff frequently, and former aides to DeLay went to work for Abramoff. When published reports revealed months ago that Abramoff had paid for DeLay's golf outing, DeLay claimed not to have known his friend was footing the bill. You're at an expensive resort where the tab has already been paid, and you don't ask who paid it?
Reed, meanwhile, worked with Abramoff to kill federal legislation that would have banned several forms of Internet wagering. Reed, implausibly, has claimed that he had no idea - no idea - the money he received in payment came from an Internet gaming outfit called eLottery. But that claim is undermined by an e-mail trail showing that Reed cooperated in a scheme to obscure the source of the funds.
Reed and DeLay are the sort of men who believe the rules don't apply to them, that the morality they preach to others is not meant to contain their own grubby ambitions, that they are somehow exempt from the common decency that ought to apply to all.
In other words, theirs is the sin of pride - a human failing that doesn't merit as much attention from today's public moralizers as it should.
Little wonder, since so many of them are guilty of it.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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