The political campaign underway in California to determine who will be elected the next Governor of our state took an interesting turn a couple weeks ago. During a debate between the two major candidates -- Former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democratic Party nominee, and Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, the Republican Party nominee -- both candidates were asked about their proposals for dealing with illegal immigration in California.
Whitman gave an aggressive answer regarding how illegal immigrants should be identified and deported, specifically calling out employers who hire undocumented workers as accomplices to the problem and stressing the financial penalties they should face if they are found to have hired illegal immigrants. The next day, news reports surfaced that Whitman had employed a housekeeper for nine years who was an illegal immigrant. The employee was swiftly terminated in June 2009, right about the time that Whitman's gubernatorial campaign was revving up in California.
It's difficult to determine with any degree of precision what impact this had on the minds of voters, but we do know this: In the Rasmussen poll of likely voters taken prior to the story breaking, Brown held a one-point lead on Whitman; in the Rasmussen poll taken after the story broke, Brown held a five-point lead. Other polls showed an even bigger surge for Brown, from a dead heat race to a lead of as many as seven points.
There is still plenty of time for Whitman to close this gap and win the election -- indeed, it seems unlikely that a veteran politician and lifetime Democrat would be well-positioned to win in this election season -- but it's clear that the undocumented housekeeper story has at least thrown her off-message and perhaps even dealt her a blow in the race.
And thus, Meg Whitman has become the latest public figure to learn a very basic lesson about the American public: we don't mind flaws in our public figures, but we have a hard time with what we perceive to be hypocrisy.
Indeed, if one breaks down the Whitman housekeeper matter, it sure seems like it's a classic "much ado about nothing" story. For one thing, the woman was employed by Whitman for nine years, so it seems safe to assume that she was well-paid and treated with respect. Second, the reports suggest that Whitman both asked for and received the proper documents regarding her new employee's legal status -- she was apparently lied to and was given falsified documents. Finally, it appears that Whitman did precisely what the law requires when she was made aware of the fact that her employee was in fact an undocumented worker, assuming that we can take her at her word that she first learned of this information in 2009.
So why has she been hurt by the story if there isn't a whole lot to it? My opinion is that it has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with hypocrisy. Whitman has been out there campaigning as a tough conservative who will deal aggressively with illegal immigrants and employers, all the while with the knowledge that she was in fact one of those employers she was now vilifying with her rhetoric. When the story emerged about her own employment of an undocumented worker less than 24 hours after she beat the illegal immigrant drum, it left a lot of us to wonder if this wasn't just another public figure emerging as a hypocrite.
There is a long list of politicians who have been penalized by the voters for the same offense. Mark Foley was a darling of the conservative right when he was elected to Congress as a Republican, but was summarily booted out of office when reports emerged that he had a secret history of flirting with teenage page boys by email and IM. And remember how quickly Newt Gingrich went from being the next great Speaker of the House to a traveling commentator when news surfaced that he was engaged in an extra-marital affair throughout the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal that he stoked on a daily basis?
In these and numerous other examples we could cite, the offense was not the personal sin of the politician, it was the perception of hypocrisy. If you're going to point your finger at someone for behavior you find so offensive, shouldn't you first make sure that you're not guilty of the same thing?
This observation goes far beyond politics. We routinely forgive the bad behavior of public figures who acknowledge their mistakes and say they're sorry for letting folks down, but we are far less eager to absolve those who scream the loudest about "those people" engaged in some conduct or another, all while secretly engaging in the same thing themselves.
For example, there is no shortage of religious leaders who have had their private sins exposed, but those who seem to fall the worst are the ones who set themselves up to be perceived as hypocrites -- Ted Haggard led a conservative Christian church organization and frequently railed against the evils of gay marriage and homosexuality, but lost his career (which he is now trying to revive) when we learned that he was seeing a male prostitute and buying illegal narcotics. And show business gives us a new scandal every week regarding someone's private behavior, but ask Mel Gibson is the price one pays is a little different when they have publicly preached about love and inclusion while privately battling demons of hatred and racism.
In my view, it comes down to a basic truth about Americans. We're not really like our European friends, who typically could care less about what someone does in their private lives and in fact seem to have even more admiration for public figures with public flaws. And we're not much like our Asian friends, who often prefer for such lurid stories to be hidden from public discussion and swept away as quietly as possible.
Instead, we have a strong tradition of empathy for our public figures and their battles. Hey, I understand what you're going through, dude, hang in there. Oh, it's so sad how they treat you, hun, but don't give up on yourself. Listen, we've been there, you guys stick together and it'll be worth it in the end. We love to read those dumb magazines and watch those stupid TV shows, but most of us are unashamedly pulling for our politicians, ministers and actresses to win their personal battles and emerge living happily ever after.
What we have less tolerance for, though, is when we conclude that one of our public figures is saying one thing and doing quite another. Hey, I thought you were all fired up about people who do that stuff, but you were doing it yourself? Oh, I can't believe you had the nerve to call out those ladies, when the whole time you had the same thing going on! It's not the sin that ticks us off, it's the "say one thing, do another" condition.
Meg Whitman seems to be a smart person, a terrific business executive, and a Californian who genuinely loves this state and wants to lead it into greener pastures. The question that she and many of her supporters may well be asking now is, "Gee, should we have been so harsh on the immigration issue when an undocumented worker was good enough to do my laundry for the past decade?"