Sunday, July 19, 2009

MAUREEN DOWD: Pharisees on the Potomac


Like cats that have lost their whiskers, the Republicans seem off balance now that they have lost their talent for hypocrisy.

They are still practicing the ancient political art of Tartuffery, of course, just without their former aplomb.

Who can forget the glory years, when the Gipper invoked God but never went to church? When Arlen Specter accused Anita Hill of perjury to distract from Clarence Thomas’s false witness? When Newt Gingrich and other conservatives indulged in affairs with young Washington peaches as they pushed to impeach Bill Clinton?

No one had more flair than W. and Cheney, crowing about making us safe as they made the world more dangerous, and bragging about fiscal restraint while they spent us into oblivion.

Now when Republicans get caught flouting the principles they dictate, they are not able to practice hypocrisy with such impunity.

Loverboy Mark Sanford’s career continued to go south last week as news organizations exposed his two-faced tactics on travel expenses. When he ran for South Carolina governor in 2002, he attacked the Democratic incumbent for “lavish spending” on hotels and planes. Once elected, he asked state employees to bunk together in hotel rooms when they traveled and chastised staffers who spent more than the $208 federal rate.

But, as Politico reports: “He routinely billed taxpayers for high-end airline seats, racking up more than $44,000 on business and first-class tickets. He often stayed in pricey hotels that far exceeded the rates he imposed on other state employees.” On a trade mission to China, Sanford spent $12,000 on business-class tickets, leaving aides in economy for about $1,900.

The religious boardinghouse in Washington where Sanford sought succor from fellow conservatives, where he agonized to pals about his tango with the enticing María, is also back in the news. Affiliated with a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship — which also sponsored Bible study and prayer circles attended by Hillary Clinton when she was a senator — the pious dwelling is becoming a tourist attraction, a monument to Republican hypocrisy.

The C Street house, as the flag-flying brick rowhouse near the Capitol is known, serves as a residence and Bible study retreat for many Christian conservative lawmakers. But it looks as if what these guys were praying for was a chance to get lucky.

John Ensign, the Promise Keeper who broke all his promises, resides there. As The Washington Post reported, Senator Tom Coburn, who lives there, had an emotional meeting about forgiveness at the house with Doug Hampton, the husband of Ensign’s mistress. (Forgiveness plus bribery can often do the trick.) Coburn says he would not talk to a court or the Senate ethics committee about the episode because he was counseling Ensign partly as a doctor. (Coburn is an ob-gyn.)

Last week, The Associated Press revealed that the estranged wife of a former Republican congressman, Chip Pickering of Mississippi, had filed an alienation of affection lawsuit seeking damages against her husband’s gal pal, a wealthy former college sweetheart named Elizabeth Creekmore Byrd.

The suit charges that as a lawmaker, Chip used C Street as a divine love nest. “Ultimately,” it says, “Creekmore Byrd gave Pickering the option to remain a public servant or become a private citizen and continue relations with her.”

Republican hypocrisy fell flat at the Sotomayor hearings. After railing all week against the “empathy standard,” as Senator Jeff Sessions called it, the Republicans tried to play the empathy card by calling in two New Haven firefighters, one white and one Hispanic, who were on the losing end of Sonia Sotomayor’s ruling. Wearing their dress uniforms, the pair told their heart-tugging tales of studying for an exam that got thrown out after they scored high. Frank Ricci, who studied hard to overcome his dyslexia, used his finger to trace under the words as he read his testimony.

But the Republican complaint against Sotomayor in that case boiled down to wanting her to be more activist. They were upset that she sided with elected officials and precedent rather than intervening to strike down a result that many people, including me, found unfair.

Sotomayor’s syntax was unfathomable, but the Republicans’ language sounded positively archaic: dire warnings against activist judges, when the conservative majority on this Supreme Court has ignored or upended precedent in a slew of cases.

Judge Sotomayor kept her feelings in check, while her white male Republican interrogators dissolved into whining about wanting to keep their guns and nunchakus and wishing they could get back some sway over what women do with their bodies.

If they are so interested in women’s bodies, maybe they should just move to C Street.

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