So South Carolina Republicans don’t care that Newt Gingrich cheated on his first two wives and that the second said he asked her for an open marriage. Judging by his soaring poll numbers, GOP voters in Florida are equally blasé about Newt’s history of infidelity and betrayal.
The “it doesn’t matter” contingent ranges from born-again believers convinced by Newt’s self-proclaimed remorse-and-redemption narrative to secular pragmatists willing to separate a candidate’s private behavior from his public leadership.
They’re all making a big mistake, and the consequences of their bad judgment could be enormous if the United States is foolish enough to elevate such a man to the White House.
Last week, when Marianne Gingrich reported that Newt asked her to tolerate his having a mistress, the comedian John Oliver defended Newt’s hypocrisy by offering a helpful historical context for the gap between his sanctity-of-marriage rhetoric and his chronic cheating.
“What could be more traditional than Newt’s marriage?” Oliver demanded on The Daily Show. “Throughout history, traditional marriage has meant powerful men doing whatever the fuck they want to do, whenever the fuck they want to do it.”
This week, the conservative lawyer Victoria Toensing, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration who is now representing the second Mrs. Gingrich, spelled out the problem with Newt’s attitude.
“When he gets power, he believes the rules do not apply to him,” Toensing wrote in The Daily Beast. “Newt asked Marianne to accept an open marriage while preaching family values to the rest of us. Such a request is not a disqualifier for a man to be an effective president, as John Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s tenures will attest. But Newt’s grandiose mindset, that the rules we all live by—including telling the truth—do not apply to him, is a different matter. His duplicity should be a disqualifier.”
Newt’s marital dishonesty and philandering are certainly repellent, but they’re personal. What’s more important—and far more alarming for the fate of the nation—is his conduct in public office. As an elected official, he’s acted the same way he behaves as a husband: he’s “a man who believes rules are only to be followed by the rest of us,” as Toensing put it.
When Newt was speaker of the House, 84 ethics charges were filed against him, and he was reprimanded and penalized $300,000 by a 395-28 House vote, hardly a close divide along partisan lines. That disgrace marked the first time in the history of the House that a speaker was disciplined for ethics violations. The special counsel to the House Ethics Committee concluded that Newt had violated federal law and lied to the ethics panel.
At least the guy is consistent. For a quick refresher course on why we should pay attention when a public servant thinks he doesn’t have to play by the rules, let’s consider some of the more memorable presidential scandals of the last few decades.
George W. Bush and his administration fudged the evidence on nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in order to muster a fraudulent case for starting the Iraq War, which cost more than $1 trillion and countless American and Iraqi lives.
Bill Clinton was the second U.S. president in history to be impeached, after he was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in a sex scandal involving a White House intern.
Ronald Reagan’s administration defied the law in the Iran-contra scandal, when the United States secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, in violation of an arms embargo, while attempting to maintain funding for the Nicaraguan contras, which was prohibited by Congress.
Facing impeachment, Richard Nixon was forced to resign as president in the Watergate scandal, in which Nixon aides committed crimes while trying to sabotage Democrats and the president himself was implicated in the resulting cover-up.
Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam while concealing the extent and the toll of American involvement, bolstering his justification for military actions with such false pretexts as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, only to be driven from office by the angry backlash against the war.
In much of Western culture, white males are raised with an inordinate sense of entitlement, and we all know that power corrupts; men in power are often afflicted with a growing sense of hubris that ultimately dooms many of them to self-destruct. Just ask Eliot Spitzer, Bernie Madoff, Jon Corzine, Anthony Weiner, or Richard Fuld, to name only a handful.
And when you combine those toxic ingredients with the enormous power wielded by any president of the United States, you get a recipe for disaster for any man who lacks a firm sense of his own human fallibility as well as a healthy respect for the limits on executive power imposed by the Founding Fathers.
Newt’s characteristic grandiosity suggests that he possesses neither quality. In private life, the primary victims have been his wives.
But if we send him to the White House, he’ll have the entire world to deceive and betray. And when the most powerful man in the world thinks the rules don’t apply to him, the potential consequences are incalculable.