The Rev. Marion (Pat) Robertson's first child was conceived out of wedlock. Nevertheless, he later made a career -- not to mention lots of money -- instructing people how to lead moral lives and, specifically, advising young people to abjure premarital sex. On the ABC news program "Nightline," Ted Koppel asked Robertson whether he wasn't guilty of "hypocrisy." To no one's surprise, Robertson said he wasn't.

Are public figures who say one thing and do -- or did -- another, hypocrites? And, if they are, what does that tell you about them? I ask that because hypocrisy has emerged as a current Washington accusation. It is supposed to reveal a number of things -- that the person is not what he says he is, that he is in no position to give advice and that he is disingenuous. In an era in which moral relativism has erased a good number of what were once firm standards, hypocrisy has become a handhold to which we can still cling.

It's hard to say precisely where hypocrisy ends and lying begins. For instance, was President Reagan being hypocritical when he said he would never bargain for the lives of American hostages and then did, or was he lying? Whichever the case, it's clear that in the president's mind the accusations that he had not been on the level were more troubling than the foreign affairs fiasco his policy created. The fact that the policy was dumb seemed not to trouble him at all. Reagan's credibility, not his competence, was on the line. He could govern without the latter but not without the former.

"Hypocrite" is a strong epithet, sometimes even stronger than "liar." That's because lying is often a defensive act -- for instance a response to a question such as "Did you steal that car?" If the thief says no, that's a lie. If, on the other hand, the thief asserts over and over again that stealing is wrong and yet does it all the time, then he is a hypocrite.

For instance, there is little doubt that Jim Bakker, the erotic evangelist, was a hypocrite. At the same time he was exhorting his flock to lead a moral life, he was cavorting with Jessica Hahn and comporting himself in the style of a drug pusher. The cars, the homes, the trips, the salaries, bonuses and expense accounts were neither aboveboard nor above reproach. He was not only not what he appeared to be, but he was not what he said he was. In other words, Bakker was a hypocrite.

But what about Robertson? He admits to having had a wild youth of wine, women and song and to later have experienced a religious conversion. The man he was is not the man he is, he says. The man whose child was conceived out of wedlock was the nearly pagan wildchild of his misspent youth. He would never do such a thing again. He is a different man.

A preacher is a kind of father, and there is hardly a parent who cannot empathize with Robertson's do-as-I-say, not-as-I've-done posture. There are lots of parents who tell their children not to do what they have already done -- not because they have experienced a religious conversion, but simply because they are no longer young and foolish. Many parents reading this, for instance, have at one time taken illegal drugs. Yet who among them would admit that to a young child while admonishing him or her not to take drugs or feel, absent a confession, that they had no right to offer advice on the subject. Is this hypocrisy? Only if the parent is still taking drugs.

None of this is to say that there is no such thing as hypocrisy. On the issue of church attendance, Ronald Reagan surely qualifies. He advocates it while he himself abstains. When asked from time to time if he is not a hypocrite in these matters, Reagan has always replied in the negative: Church is good, family is wonderful; the family that prays together stays together -- which may explain why Reagan's hasn't. If he felt as strongly about church attendance as he says he does, he would find a way.

But Reagan's petty hypocrisy when it comes to church attendance is a mere misdemeanor by Washington standards. This town is the home office of public posturing and that leads, as surely as day does to night, to hypocrisy. Washington is rife with rumors of politicians who denounce homosexuality while practicing it themselves or who oppose abortion while making exceptions for women in their own family. That is the sort of politician Hannah Arendt had in mind when she wrote, "The hypocrite's crime is that he bears false witness against himself." When it comes to politicians, though, Arendt's phrase is only half true. The politician who would deny others what he would not deny himself (an abortion for a loved one, for instance) has compounded Arendt's crime. The victim is not just the hypocrite himself. He might have to live with his conscience, but, as in the case of a prohibited abortion, someone else would have to live with the baby.

In the case of Pat Robertson, his alleged hypocrisy was really well- intentioned. It was not so much an attempt to conceal as an attempt to point the way -- to say "Don't do as I do, do as I say." We anticipate moral failure both in ourselves and in our kids. That doesn't make us hypocrites, but realists instead. If the extent of Robertson's hypocrisy is the gap between his intentions and his performance -- if, in fact, he didn't always live up to the moral standards he set for himself and others -- then he is neither a liar nor a hypocrite. He is merely human and that, as Alexander Pope instructed us, means to err.