I know that the conventional wisdom is that in answering last night’s question from CNN’s John King, about whether he had asked his then-wife to enter into an open marriage, Newt Gingrich “hit it out of the park.” He certainly brought the GOP audience to its feet. He’s winning praise from all sides for how he turned the question into an assault on the mainstream media.
I accept the fact that Gingrich helped himself politically with his answer. He may even win the South Carolina primary tomorrow. (Indeed, I think it’s quite likely that will occur.) But I do think that it’s useful to excerpt the debate transcript and analyze what it might tell us.
Here’s how the exchange went:
MR. KING: As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
MR. GINGRICH: No — but I will. (Cheers, applause.) I think — I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. KING: Is that all you want to say, sir?
MR. GINGRICH: Let me finish.
MR. KING: Please. (Boos, cheers, applause.)
MR. GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. (Cheers, applause.) My — my two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC, and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it. And I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate. (Cheers, applause.)
The language Gingrich used to describe the media – “destructive,” “vicious,” “negative,” and guilty of reporting “trash” — is typical of the understatement we’ve come to expect from him. But I want to focus on Mr. Gingrich’s claim that to report this story two days before the South Carolina primary is “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
Really? Anything Mr. Gingrich can imagine? More despicable than, say, rape? Or murder? Or genocide? Or – just to pull an example out of mid-air — serially cheating on your wives? And to do so when you’re, say, Speaker of the House? During the impeachment of Bill Clinton over crimes that grew out of an affair with an intern? Reporting that story was more despicable than any of these things?
I’m sorry, Gingrich supporters throughout the land, but words have meaning. And for Mr. Gingrich to make the claim he did – and to win thunderous applause for it – is both amazing and somewhat dispiriting.
My guess is that Mr. Gingrich’s words were completely heartfelt. It’s not that what he said was in any sense objectively true; it’s that from his perspective, they are true. Given his absolute certitude in his own greatness – he is, after all, the man who once told a reporter that it’s people like him who “stand between us and Auschwitz” – Gingrich believes any charge against him is a dagger aimed at the heart of Western civilization.
It was quite revealing to me that Mr. Gingrich, in his answer, didn’t show any contrition or remorse. Instead, he reacted with indignant self-righteousness. So think about this: Mr. Gingrich, a candidate for the presidency, is enraged because the press interviewed his ex-wife and, in the process, has drawn attention to his own infidelity and mistreatment of his ex-wife, which no one disputes. And in all of this the injured party isn’t Marianne Gingrich but rather Newt Gingrich. The offending party isn’t the former speaker; it’s the press for daring to raise this matter.
For the record, I believe in, and have written often about, liberal bias in the news media. I also think Mr. Gingrich is a man in possession of some very impressive political talents, some of which have been on display during the last week. He ranks as one of the more significant conservative political figures in the last several decades. He’s capable of offering piercing insights. And he’s a person of almost supernatural resilience. But he’s also a man of flawed character and temperamentally unequipped to be president. Time and again he’s shown himself to be erratic and alarmingly undisciplined. And the fact that his answer last night – which I will concede worked brilliantly for him – brought a conservative audience to its feet was not one of the conservative movement’s finest hours.