Your Cheating Heart: Why Pols Don't Practice What They Preach

Once again, a public figure known for his staunch position on family values has been caught philandering, and once again, the public is left wondering how these guys keep getting themselves into these messes.

After admitting to using escort services provided by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the D.C. Madam, Sen. David Vitter, R- La., became the latest public figure to get caught preaching one thing and practicing quite another.

It is a combination of hubris and denial that allows politicians and other public figures to say one thing and do the opposite, psychologists told

Vitter made a name for himself as a vocal social conservative and champion of family values.

Speaking last year in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Vitter said, "It's often said, but it's very, very true, and it is worth repeating -- marriage is truly the most fundamental social institution in human history."

But in a statement released Monday, Vitter issued an apology that made those previous remarks seem farcical.

"This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible," Vitter said in a written statement. "Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way."

Vitter is certainly not the first politician to get caught in a sex scandal, nor is he the first public figure to proclaim the sanctity of the family while cheating on his wife.

Liberals and conservatives are equally adept at talking out of both sides of their mouths. Former President Bill Clinton was perhaps the nation's most well-known philanderer, but even his most vocal critic, Newt Gingrich, later admitted to cheating on not one but two of his wives.

Psychologists offer several reasons why politicians and other public figures, such as ministers, say one thing and do the opposite.

"People can believe in two opposing things. Humans are ingenious in how they can make exceptions for themselves. 'Practice what you preach' is an old saw, but there are plenty of charismatic figures who are known to be mean and nasty in their home life," said Paul Ekman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco.

"These people make an exception for themselves. The very fact of their own misbehavior is the reason they preach to others," he said.

These men, and most are men, sometimes believe their high station in life makes them exempt from the rules, and in other cases are trying to work out their own inner demons by admonishing bad behavior in others, psychologists said.

According to Judy Kuriansky, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, men in positions of power often believe they are above the rules that they impose on their followers.

"Often the people who speak loudest about something are trying to protect themselves from their own urges. They act out one way on the public stage, but inside they have this urge. They feel it's wrong, and outwardly, they're telling themselves it's wrong. It's as if they're having a conversation with themselves," she said.

Kuriansky said preachers and clergy who succumb to temptation similarly try to work out their own issues when admonishing their congregants for the things they do themselves.

As with elected officials, a preacher's politics has little to do with his capacity for cheating.

The Rev. Al Sharpton from New York City and Ted Haggard from Colorado Springs, Colo., both have admitted to cheating on their wives.

Haggard confessed in November 2006 to using methamphetamines and paying a male prostitute for sex. Haggard had made a name for himself by condemning homosexuality and opposing gay marriage legislation.

"As with politicians, it's the same psychological phenomenon when preachers do the same thing. They have to appeal to the public, but it is not necessarily what they really believe," Kuriansky said.

As for how Vitter moves on from here, John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, said he has already taken the best first step by admitting his mistake and asking for forgiveness.

"His best bet is to acknowledge responsibility and ask forgiveness. … A lot of people are going over things he's said in the past. One good piece of advice is when you're in a hole, stop digging. I'd advise him not talk about any issues of sexual morality for a while," he said.