Hypocrisy in Washington is not a new story. And yet it never ceases to amaze how politicians do such a poor job covering their own tracks as they try to maintain the appearance that they live by the principles they preach.


Take House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Yesterday, along with many other House members, Hastert showed up, on foot, for a photo op at a BP gas station on Pennsylvania Avenue. He and other Republicans have floated a proposal to provide consumers some relief from rising gas prices by offering a $100 rebate for taxpayers, suggesting that taxes might be increased on oil-industry profits, and pushed again for opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil production. When the press conference was over, Hastert hopped (well, more like squeezed) into a fuel-efficient hydrogen car to the snaps of excited photographers. He then drove off, ostensibly riding back to his office, one block away. But a few seconds later he pulled the car over, got out, and stepped into a hulking, gas-guzzling SUV. The moment was captured by an enterprising photog, and was posted on Yahoo! News in a matter of minutes.


Democrats, of course, also got a chance to sing out of tune, though they did it facing the cameras. Speaking to reporters after the BP photo-op, Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel were asked what kind of cars they had driven to the gas station. Schumer quickly answered, “Every one of us drove — drove fuel-efficient cars here.” But Emanuel decided to be more specific, describing his Ford Taurus. When the press corps started to giggle, Emanuel began reaching for his wallet from which he pulled out his subway card, “Right here? Wait a second. Hold on. Hold on. No. No. I ain’t doing this. You want to play that game? Chicago CTA card, public transportation. Washington, D.C., public transportation. Any time you want, anywhere you want to go.”


Trying to make the press look silly for asking, Emanuel ended up seeming the fool himself, standing there with his Metro card as if its presence in his pocket had proved anything. Or, as Soledad O’Brien said in a segment describing the moment, “Well, you know, I was going to look around for my Metro card, and I drive a big old SUV. So, you know, having a Metro card does not necessarily mean that you don’t drive a big old gas-guzzling vehicle.”


Dana Milbank had the right idea in his column yesterday, describing the amount of gas guzzled by each of the politician’s cars: “Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) hopped in a GMC Yukon (14 mpg). Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) climbed aboard a Nissan Pathfinder (15). Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) stepped into an eight-cylinder Ford Explorer (14). Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) disappeared into a Lincoln Town Car (17). Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) met up with an idling Chrysler minivan (18).”


A moment like this can perfectly and easily illustrate why no one in government is offering any real solutions to this problem, which, as Milbank puts it, is “that Americans drive too much in too-big cars.”


And it’s not the laughing matter that the folks over at CNN made it out to be, joking that perhaps the solution would be exchanging the presidential motorcade for bicycles. “Yes, he could do it,” quipped Soledad. “He’s in good shape.”


Our consumption of gas is only going to become a bigger and bigger story, with consequences far into the future, from the environment to foreign policy. The press would do well to take every chance it can get — even if it means exploiting the foibles and missteps of our politicians — to make it real for us.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.