Newt Gingrich earned the wild applause of the audience in the hall for last night’s Republican presidential debate when he termed the media’s publicizing his ex-wife’s charges against him as “disgusting.” The tactic may have worked, at least in the short run, especially because Marianne Gingrich’s interview on ABC’s “Nightline” Thursday night didn’t contain much that anyone who had followed the story didn’t already know. Those who suspect the motivation for running the piece on the eve of the South Carolina primary may have been to derail Gingrich may not be far off the mark.
Yet for all of the fact that Gingrich may not suffer any negative consequences from the accusations contained in her interview in the coming days, it must be said that his attempt to turn the tables on his accusers seemed as contrived as ABC’s defense of its decision. Gingrich is a past master at conjuring up a spirit of righteous indignation at the drop of a hat, but given the fact that the issue is the result of his own sleazy behavior and hypocrisy and not any actual wrongdoing by his accusers, his assertion that it is the media that is “despicable” sounded a false note.
Some observers have rightly noted that we are not electing a moralist or a husband-in-chief but a commander-in-chief, and it is entirely possible a person with flaws would still make a great president. But the issue again here is not just that Gingrich appears to have behaved in a swinish fashion to both of his first two wives but the level of his public hypocrisy about it. He clearly thought and obviously still thinks those who espouse morality and indeed, seek to hold others accountable for their failings as he did President Clinton, need not necessarily practice what they preach.
It would have behooved Gingrich to display some humility when asked about the question and to have simply repeated his standard statement about having caused pain in the past and asked God for forgiveness. But the surly and vindictive Gingrich did not content himself with such an effective and hopefully honest answer. Instead, he sought to scapegoat those who questioned him about his past and even called his ex-wife a liar and illogically asserted that he could prove her words to be false.
This is neither the first nor the last time we will have to deal with the intersection of politics and personal morality. The last time we dealt with this was when Herman Cain was forced to account for the fact that several women had accused him of sexual harassment and one of having had an affair. He, too, tried to turn the tables on the media and also earned some applause for that effort.
At that time I argued that though the discussion was regrettable, I’d still rather live in a country where the press sought to hold politicians accountable for their behavior than one in which journalists chose not, as it used to be the practice, to report about politicians’ peccadilloes. The people have a right to know what kind of person they are being asked to put in the Oval Office. By responding to questions about his past conduct in a manner consistent with the hypocrisy alleged by his ex-wife, Gingrich has provided an unfortunate answer to that query.