Dangerous Behavior

Why Newt Gingrich ‘Open Marriage’ Claim Should Matter for Voters

Can voters reconcile Gingrich's private conduct with the consequences of his policies? By Leslie Bennetts

Just in time for this weekend’s South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich’s second ex-wife gave the electorate a refresher course on his conduct during their marriage, when he was leading the wolfpack hounding Bill Clinton over his sexual indiscretions, even as the speaker himself philandered with a congressional staffer who ultimately became Gingrich Wife No. 3.

Newt apparently wanted Wife No. 2 to accept his extramarital activity. “He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused,” said Marianne Gingrich in a Nightline interview with ABC-TV’s Brian Ross.

Newt’s sexual history didn’t prevent Rick Perry from endorsing him this week, and it hasn’t precluded the support of conservative and evangelical voters, who are usually far less forgiving in judging a candidate’s fitness for office against their rigid definition of family values (a discrepancy that should be recalled the next time the religious right condemns a liberal politician for sexual infidelity). Pious baloney indeed.

But aside from the usual hand-wringing about hypocrisy, no one has proposed any serious guidelines on what, if anything, such personal betrayals should mean to voters. Brian Ross did the usual generic harrumphing about The Meaning of It All on TV: Gingrich’s conduct raised “troubling questions” that are “questions of character,” he said.

Well, yeah—but if character is the question, what’s the answer? In recent years, the verdicts have varied, typically deriving from someone’s personal rather than political beliefs. A Bible-belt Christian who thinks adultery is a sin that sends someone straight to hell will probably weight such behavior differently than a secular humanist who views anyone’s sexual conduct as nobody else’s damn business.

But there are more substantive ways of assessing such questions than shrugging them off with “It depends,” and there are principles more enduring than the variable answers our society has given over time. Here’s one suggestion: what we really should be focusing on is sex, lies, and public policy.

The relevance of a politician’s sexual conduct to his performance as a leader has long bedeviled American politics, and our response has evolved over the years. In the past, the question pertained almost exclusively to men, and the men who ran for office were largely protected by the men who controlled access to information about them through the media, as the writer Suzannah Lessard observed in an essay published during the 1980 presidential campaign.

“Philandering, like heavy drinking, traditionally has been one of those activities that the boys in the press keep mum about when reporting on the boys on the Hill,” wrote Lessard, who questioned why the electorate was not being informed about the sexual behavior of Teddy Kennedy (once described by The American Spectator as an “icon of feminists who used women like Kleenex”).

Many men still think such behavior is irrelevant. When asked whether infidelity is a legitimate character issue for voters, one esteemed member of today’s politics-and-policy establishment, himself the head of an influential organization, was unequivocal in his answer: “There is no correlation between someone’s private sexual behavior and their performance as a leader,” he said.

From Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin to FDR, JFK, and MLK, many revered figures have behaved with far greater rectitude in their public capacity than in their sex lives. Women who admire such leaders often overlook their private transgressions, a choice that can leave them equally vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, as Lessard noted in describing the inconsistent reaction of many feminists to Senator Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Although he was then married to Joan Kennedy, the mother of his children, Kennedy received the enthusiastic support of many women’s-rights activists who were so grateful for his strong record on women’s issues that they looked the other way when it came to his flagrant philandering. The charge that feminists excuse such behavior by progressive politicians was subsequently resurrected during the Clinton administration, when Republicans condemned women’s advocates for failing to speak out about the president’s sexual misdeeds.

Hypocrisy is distasteful no matter who the guilty party is, but judgments about its relevance are as personal as judgments about a candidate’s sex life. If you think someone is a dirtball for cheating on his wife and lying about it, you’re entitled to your opinion.

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But when it comes to politics, what’s important is a candidate’s power to affect public policy, and thus the lives of millions of other people.

According to The Washington Post, after Newt Gingrich asked Marianne for a divorce, he “gave a speech titled ‘The Demise of American Culture’ to the Republican Women Leaders Forum in Erie, Pa., extolling the virtues of the Founding Fathers and criticizing liberal politicians for supporting tax increases, saying they hurt families and children.”

The hubris of the man never ceases to astound. “How could he ask me for a divorce on Monday and within 48 hours give a speech on family values and talk about how people treat people?” Marianne Gingrich asked The Post.

Newt’s treatment of his wife was deplorable, but what voters should be focusing on is the welfare of the electorate—or specifically, in his own words, on what really has the power to “hurt families and children.”

One of the leading culprits is the abdication of responsibility by men who abandon their wives and fail to pay child support, leaving many women and children in dire straits. Just take a look at the poverty statistics; the poor in this country are largely women and children.

And yet the Republican right continues to promote the virtues of traditional marriage, espousing conventional gender stereotypes that conform to Christian dogma by relegating wives to subordinate status while giving familial authority to their husbands. Other evergreen conservative refrains include the criticism of feminists and working mothers for supposedly abandoning their domestic duties in favor of paid work outside the home.

But what happens to the woman who adheres to this retro feminine mystique? If she becomes a homemaker and depends on her husband for support, what if the family breadwinner turns out to be a guy like Newt Gingrich? The wife who sacrificed her ability to earn a living finds herself in deep trouble when hubby rewards her trust by running off with a newer, younger, blonder babe.

That outcome represents a personal catastrophe for a discarded wife and her children—but what if the errant husband is a member of Congress, let alone the president of the United States? Such office holders have enormous power over public policy.

And if a man with such power is also a Republican, he’s a leading spokesperson for a party that consistently opposes women’s ability to achieve pay equity, reproductive freedom, decent child care, and any number of other crucial elements of women’s autonomy, not to mention their ability to support their children when their husbands disappear.

If Republican men want women to follow such a dangerous course, they should have to answer for how they lived up to their end of that deal in their own personal lives.

And if they want us to elect them to high office, they should also be required to explain how voters can reconcile their private conduct with the consequences of their public policies.

Because if we elevate them to the White House, the rest of us are also going to have to live with the gap between what they say and what they actually do. And in that scenario, we all become Marianne Gingrich.