In Washington, they spell hypocrisy ‘a-u-s-t-e-r-i-t-y’

Hypocrisy is so widely recognized as a universal trait that it’s amazing how often we are shocked—shocked!—to find other people indulging in it. Take the late Strom Thurmond, for example.

The late governor and senator-for-life from South Carolina was, as one writer described him, a tireless champion of “states’ rights, clean livin’, segregation, bible thumpin’ an’ prune juice.” Now, Strom certainly fought the good fight for states’ rights and we’re not aware that his zeal ever flagged for either bible thumping or prune juice. But it appears he did not carry clean living or even segregation as far as folks might have thought. He was a notoriously strict teetotaler, though, so he most likely was stone sober when he fathered a child with an African-American maid long, long ago — which child, now 78, is on a well-publicized book tour, promoting her memoir, “Dear Senator.”

But let us not be hasty to cry “Hypocrite!” at ol’ Strom’s soul. He may at one time have railed against miscegenation or, more crudely, the “mongrelization of the races.” But that was, as we all know, an “age of innocence” compared to these troubled times. How was Strom to know that even in his beloved Southland, mixed breeding would one day lead to mixed drinking?

There is, to be sure, hypocrisy all over the world and on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. You can hear it all the time. Lately, we’ve been hearing politicians use words like “lean,” “austere” and “tight,” and they’re not even talking about what Jennifer Garner’s wearing in “Elektra.” (Forgive me, my mind wandered for a moment.)

No, they’re talking about the latest Bush budget, which is far less interesting. It is, however, a weighty subject. It calls for spending $2.57 trillion next year, not counting the supplemental budget (another $80 billion or so) for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been described as the most austere spending plan the Bush administration has yet proposed, but that’s not saying a whole lot.

It’s still roughly a trillion dollars more than the $1.6 trillion budget Bill Clinton brought forth just 10 years ago. This is “austerity” in our time.

Now “austerity” is both a word people like to use and a virtue we are loath to practice. Most of us love spending other people’s money. That’s true even of us Granite Staters, who are well known for our frugality. Yes, we like to keep a tight rein on our money, which is why we prefer to have things decided on the local level, where we can exercise restraint over those tax dollars.

Unless, of course, the president proposes to cut something important to us, like home heating assistance. Now that, by God, is carrying austerity too far!

Or is it? New Hampshire is a small, relatively affluent state, ranked among the top half-dozen states in per capita and household income. You might think we would be both willing and able to help those of our own neighbors who can’t pay their fuel bills. Surely, the liberals among us, given their well-advertised compassion for the poor, would be willing. And conservatives prefer assistance be rendered as close to home as possible, right? Well, no, not really. Not if we have to tax ourselves or reach into our own private pockets to do it. We would rather have people in Florida, Arizona and New Mexico taxed to pay for our home-heating assistance. It’s only fair, after all, since we pay taxes to insure flood plains and provide hurricane and drought relief in other parts of the country.

So we go running to Washington, hat in hand, to help our neighbors here in New Hampshire. That way, we “fiscal conservatives” don’t have to pay for it ourselves — ’cause it’s “federal money,” right?

We finance state government here with a lot of “sin taxes” — revenue raised from smoking, drinking and gambling. But we’ve not yet figured out a way to gain revenue from hypocrisy, that age-old “tribute that vice pays to virtue.”

Now if the taxing authorities could figure out a way to collect that “tribute,” we might soon wipe out deficits at all levels of government.

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