The revelation by Newt Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, that he wanted an “open marriage” has once again forced voters to consider to what degree, if any at all, a politician’s private conduct should factor into whom they vote for. My own view, which I’ve written about several times, is that one’s personal character matters — but how much it matters depends on facts and circumstances. (For more, see here:)
Critics of Newt Gingrich will say this information merely confirms their pre-existing concerns about Gingrich — that he’s a man who is self-indulgent, terribly undisciplined, and capable of unusual personal cruelty. Supporters of Gingrich will argue that while his conduct doesn’t reflect well on the former speaker, it happened more than a decade ago and, on top of all that, he’s a changed, and better, man. Gingrich himself is using his daughters to make his case, informing us they have sent a letter to the president of ABC News saying, “from a family perspective, they think this is totally wrong.” And while Gingrich himself insists he won’t say anything negative about his former wife, his aides are referring to her as “bitter.”
For now, I’ll set aside my views on the relevance of these newest revelations in order to make a separate point.
When it came to Bill Clinton, those on the left insisted adultery was irrelevant when it came to political figures. Infidelity is a victimless behavior, understandable in many circumstances, and we needed to “compartmentalize” the private actions of a politician from their public duties. We needed to be more like Europe — sophisticated, tolerant, and non-judgmental. Grace and forgiveness were the virtues of the day. Those who criticized Clinton for his “indiscretions” were moralistic, judgmental, and sex-obsessed.
For many on the right, it was very much the opposite. When Bill Clinton was president, private character mattered. It was said those in political power should be individuals of good character. A person who is willing to cheat on his spouse and break his marital vows is highly unreliable. Betrayal is a garment without seams. George Washington, a man of impressive personal virtues, was cited as a model. The danger was bestowing “cheap grace” on those who didn’t merit it.
I understand as much as the next person the difficulty in offering detached judgments about those with whom we agree politically and philosophically versus those with whom we disagree. But often there doesn’t seem to be the slightest inclination to check the impulse of the double standard. Some conservatives who found Bill Clinton’s personal behavior repellent, and very nearly disqualifying, have suddenly developed a good deal more understanding for the wandering eye of a powerful politician (there are some impressive exceptions, including William Bennett). The fact that a self-proclaimed “Reagan conservative” wanted an open marriage while he was speaker of the House is considered old and irrelevant news. In fact, the true victim in all this is Newt Gingrich. And those who were furious about the assault that was leveled against women who claimed they had affairs with Bill Clinton now seem to have a fair amount of tolerance when it comes to dismissing Marianne Gingrich as the “bitter” and “angry” ex-wife.
Hypocrisy is a vice as old as mankind. We all view the world through tinted lenses. And all of us are naturally inclined to cut more slack to those on our side of the aisle than those on the other side. What matters, I suppose, is the degree to which those in the political class place intellectual and moral honesty above partisan and philosophical affiliations. Those who can are impressive. They’re also rare.