These are perilous times not only for the elderly and the unhealthy. COVID-19 has lowered America’s tolerance for politicians who say one thing and do another.
Hypocrisy has never been a popular character trait for those in public office, but the outrage it spurs is on the rise during a time of government-imposed restrictions on where people go and how businesses or other institutions operate.
If you are going to urge or order people to wear masks, avoid social gatherings and stay put in their homes, you’d better be careful not to break your own rules in public. Someone is going to be watching and call you out on it.
From coast to coast, however, those in public office keep tripping up on this.
From Gov. Gavin Newsom in California to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, state leaders have been caught breaking — or planning to break — their own rules or health experts’ guidance. From Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, whose Mississippi connection got him in trouble, to Mississippi’s own Gov. Tate Reeves, they have shown this failing is a bipartisan one.
Newsom went to a dinner party earlier this month at one of the ritziest restaurants in the country, where he was caught rubbing shoulders with friends and lobbyists, all unmasked. Cuomo, who has imposed a 10-person limit on indoor gatherings, had planned to abide by that restriction at Thanksgiving with a family get-together at the Governor’s Mansion that included his mother and two of his daughters. Such a gathering, however, would have violated a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation, endorsed by Cuomo, that discourages people from gathering in their home with anyone other than those with whom they regularly live.
Hancock, within an hour of urging Denver residents to not travel for the holiday, boarded a commercial flight for Mississippi so he could spend Thanksgiving with his wife and a daughter who had recently landed a job in this state.
Reeves’ missteps are not as recent, but they were plentiful during the 2020 presidential campaign. His allegiance to Donald Trump put Mississippi’s governor at several political gatherings where he, like most of those in attendance, did not wear the facial masks Reeves has for months been urging or ordering Mississippians to wear.
Because Mississippi is heavily Republican and has been a staunch supporter of the mask-averse Trump, Reeves has not taken as much grief in this state as Newsom, Cuomo and Hancock, all Democrats, have taken in theirs. Nor are all of these errors in judgment of the same scale.
Cuomo, for example, caught his in time. Two hours after announcing his Thanksgiving plans, he called them off so as to avoid the “do as I say, not as I do” tag.
Had Newsom or Hancock announced their plans ahead of time — rather than getting caught in the act — the blowback they would have gotten might have caused them to reconsider.
These examples illustrate the aggravation or weariness some feel for what they are being asked to do to reduce the pandemic’s toll. That’s why they’re ready to pounce on anyone in public life who is not consistent in modeling the behavior that’s expected of everyone else.
Newsom was particularly tone-deaf. California has imposed some of the most sweeping restrictions in the nation, including putting limits on restaurants that have crippled their business for long stretches since March. There was a Marie Antoinette quality to Newsom not just breaking his own rules but doing so at a French restaurant where dinner starts at $350 per person. Prices and wages are high in Napa Valley, but still that’s a meal that would take about a day and a half’s wages of an average California worker — assuming that worker has kept his or her job during the Newsom-imposed shutdowns. The occasion made Newsom seem not just hypocritical but out of touch.
Pandemic restrictions are a delicate balance. There’s the balance between being totally safe and killing the economy. There’s also the balance between what people can be persuaded into doing and what they can’t.
Asking people to do the “Big Three” — wash their hands regularly, wear a mask in indoor public spaces and, wherever possible, keep 6 feet apart — are reasonable expectations to set and in some situations mandate. Trying to tell families whose members don’t all live in the same household to forgo seeing each other is largely a waste of breath. It also risks fostering resistance to other, less intrusive restrictions.
Those in public office already have a gauge of what limits are going to be seen as tolerable by most Americans. It’s the ones the politicians can generally adhere to themselves.