As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has recently become the latest fad in the never-ending search for an ‘un-Romney’ in the GOP Presidential Primary race, I think it is important to reflect on a matter of character. Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles noted in an interview a few years ago that while the Church is politically neutral, it teaches its members to “seek out and find good, honest men and women of value, with values and virtue and honesty and integrity and encourage them to run for office, and then to use their agency to vote for whomever they choose.” (I was pleased to see that Elder Ballard mentioned we should seek out good men and women. As one might expect, earlier statements from Church leaders, particularly from earlier generations, typically only mentioned men, tacitly but perhaps unintentionally leading members to believe that women had no place in running for office.)
Newt Gingrich’s marital infidelities are no secret. But I’ll outline them here for readers who may not be aware. At the height of Gingrich’s power as Speaker of the House in the 1990s, he was compelled to resign in disgrace on January 3, 1999 following an embarrassing defeat for Republicans at the polls. In November 1998 voters punished the Republican Party for attempting to remove President Bill Clinton from office due to a scandal surrounding Clinton’s marital infidelities with a White House intern. The elections dealt House Republicans the worst defeat in 64 years for a party that did not hold the presidency. Before the elections, while Gingrich was leading House Republicans in their attempt to impeach President Clinton for his affair, Gingrich himself was involved in a lengthy sexual affair with a young staffer named Callista Bisek. How utterly ironic and hypocritical it was for Gingrich to be the lead stone-caster during the Clinton impeachment while Gingrich was engaged in a very similar marital affair! Adding to the creepiness of the matter, Gingrich’s then-wife had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And what makes the situation even worse in my view is that Gingrich divorced his then-wife to go off an marry the young staffer, who was 23 years younger than him! Can you imagine the uproar we would have heard from the media, let alone from the self-proclaimed defenders of traditional values in the right-wing punditocracy, had Bill Clinton divorced Hillary and married Monica Lewinsky?
Callista Bisek is Newt Gingrich’s third wife. What may be a surprise to some is that Gingrich pulled off a very similar “bait and switch” affair in 1980 when he left his cancer-ridden first wife for Marianne Ginther, a woman with whom he was having an affair. After the divorce in 1980, Gingrich’s first wife, Jackie Battley, told the media that she was taken by “complete surprise” when Gingrich approached her in her hospital room while she was recovering from surgery and asked her for a divorce. Additionally, Marianne Ginther reported in an interview in 2010 that Gingrich asked her to marry him even before he obtained a divorce from his first wife. (As an aside, Gingrich isn’t the only politician who left an ill first wife for a mistress. Republican Senator John McCain did the same thing in 1980.)
In speaking of her ex-husband’s potential bid for the presidency in a 2010 interview, Marianne Ginther addressed the contradiction of a candidate who seeks the nomination of a political party that claims to represent traditional American family values while having lived a life often devoid of such values. During the interview, she recounted the occasion when she discovered that Newt was having an affair:
[After discovering the affair] she called a minister they both trusted. He came over to the house the next day and worked with them the whole weekend, but Gingrich just kept saying she was a Jaguar and all he wanted was a Chevrolet. “‘I can’t handle a Jaguar right now.’ He said that many times. ‘All I want is a Chevrolet.'”
He asked her to just tolerate the affair, an offer she refused.
He’d just returned from Erie, Pennsylvania, where he’d given a speech full of high sentiments about compassion and family values.
The next night, they sat talking out on their back patio in Georgia. She said, “How do you give that speech and do what you’re doing?”
“It doesn’t matter what I do,” he answered. “People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”
Ms. Ginther summarized Gingrich’s attitude: “he believes that what he says in public and how he lives don’t have to be connected.”
Do those statements sound like that of someone who is repentant of a serious transgression? Do they sound like the kind of things that would be said by a public official who is a “good, honest m[a]n… with values and virtue and honesty and integrity”?
I recall that while I was a student at BYU, many of my friends and classmates would criticize President Clinton and suggest he was not a good president. When I probed further to find out what specific Clinton policies they disagreed with, most could not articulate anything beyond the usual “he supports abortion and gay marriage” (neither of which are true). And then they would universally cite the Lewinsky affair as evidence of Clinton’s failed presidency. In essence, most people I encountered at BYU who spoke to me about politics had no idea about what the Clinton Administration actually did. And they usually felt they needed to look no further than his affair with Lewinsky when evaluating Clinton’s performance.
I’ve wondered lately how those students would react to a Newt Gingrich candidacy. What if Gingrich becomes the GOP presidential nominee in 2012? Would they vote for him and if so, wouldn’t that prove they are hypocrites, having a double standard of moral conduct for Republicans vs Democrats? How will the self-proclaimed “values voters” react in 2012 if Newt Gingrich is on the ballot? How would Utah, a majority of whose voters self-identify as Latter-Day Saints, vote in such a scenario?
Of course there are a plethora of politicians who have engaged in immoral conduct, breaking their marital vows while holding public office. And the offenders come from all political parties. While Bill Clinton’s affair may have garnered the most media attention, other recent notables include Republicans John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Mark Foley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani, and Democrats John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer. In some cases, the offenders felt compelled to resign after their infidelities were made public. Others endured the public shaming and held onto their positions. At least two of our Founding Fathers violated the law of chastity. DNA testing has shown that Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third President, had a long-term affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and most likely fathered at least one child with Hemings. Benjamin Franklin notoriously had several mistresses and authored a letter in 1745 entitled “advice to a friend on choosing a mistress,” in which he counseled a young man about sexual issues, including attributes one should look for in a mistress.
For me, Newt Gingrich’s candidacy raises questions about the qualities of a good public leader. Should public officials ever be forgiven for private misdeeds such as affairs, especially if they did not violate the law? Should an evaluation of a politician’s performance in office include an examination of their personal life? Can Latter-Day Saints who seek to follow the Church’s counsel in voting for people who are honest, virtuous, and have integrity, vote for someone who has been unfaithful to their spouse or, even worse, is unrepentant about such behavior? I don’t have good answers to these questions. But I hope by writing about Newt Gingrich’s candidacy juxtaposed with his blatantly immoral personal life will cause some introspection, particularly among those who were quick to dismiss Bill Clinton because of the Lewinsky affair.
I find the following statement from Matthew Yglesias, a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, to be intriguing:
The demands of being President of the United States are straightforwardly incompatible with being a model husband and father. The hours, the travel, and the stress just don’t make it add up. But it can’t be the case that all Presidents of the United States lack the requisite character to be President of the United States. It has to be the case that the kind of character that matters for a public official isn’t the same as the kind of character that matters to be a good husband and father. After all, you want a responsible public official to neglect his family and friends (“hard-working”), to display a certain kind of ruthlessness and cunning (“negotiation”), to be a bit of a phony in certain situations (“diplomacy”), and all kinds of other things that don’t carry over straightforwardly from personal life to public affairs.
Yet I desire, perhaps as most people do, that the people we elect to lead our local, state, and federal governments will behave honestly and with integrity in both their personal and public lives. I don’t think you can entirely divorce one’s public persona with their private one. If I knew in advance of an election that a candidate had exhibited a pattern of immoral conduct in his or her personal life, I would be hesitant to vote for them. As I mentioned in a comment to a reader in one of my Mitt Romney posts, I have two main criteria in determining my vote: first, the person should be someone of good and moral character; second, they should be correct on the issues as I see them and should have relevant experience. The problem with the first criteria is that it is usually impossible to judge a candidate’s character. Most of us do not personally know the people who run for office and thus we usually make such character judgments based on what we hear in the media, on talk radio, in campaign ads, and from hearsay. For my part, unless I have some clear evidence that a candidate is a total immoral scum bag, I rely most heavily on my second criteria- which is an evaluation of where they stand on the issues and whether they have right experience.
The 2012 election will certainly be a memorable one, but it will especially be interesting to see how people who claim to be “value voters” behave if the race ends up as a contest between Gingrich, a man with questionable integrity, and Barack Obama, who by all accounts is a devoted husband and father.