We already knew that Newt Gingrich left his first wife, Jackie, when she had cancer so that he could marry his second wife, Marianne.
We also knew that Gingrich later left Marianne, after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so that he could marry his third and current wife, Callista.
But on Thursday we learned, from Marianne Gingrich’s explosive interview with ABC News, that the former speaker asked her for an “open marriage” so that he could carry on with Callista with impunity.
Some Gingrich defenders argue that the latest charges are the bitter rantings of a woman scorned. Perhaps.
Others say that all of this alleged bad behavior occurred years ago, before Gingrich converted to Catholicism and mended his ways. Fair enough.
Meanwhile, as the Republican presidential race moves on to Florida, political pundits (and Gingrich himself) condemn the “chilling effect” that such “gotcha” journalism has on the willingness of good people to serve in public office.
Yet, while all of these responses to the Marianne Gingrich interview have some validity, they ignore a central tenet of modern conservatism: character does and should count.
Gingrich tells voters they should choose him because he has the best policy ideas. But America doesn’t need a policy wonk as president; America needs a leader. And character is an integral part of leadership.
Does this mean that anyone who is divorced or who has made mistakes lacks the character to be president? Of course not. To err is human. And we Americans are a forgiving bunch.
Ronald Reagan was divorced from Jane Wyman, the mother of his two eldest children. But Wyman had a deep, abiding respect for Reagan and proudly voted for her ex, whom she later called a “great president, and a kind and gentle man.”
But where Reagan’s marital history revealed his humanity, Gingrich’s reveals a man who is not just imperfect, but repeatedly cruel. Moreover, Gingrich’s personal baggage validates, rather than contradicts, his professional reputation as a narcissist and a bully.
All of which should signal to voters that Gingrich has neither the self-discipline nor the temperament to be president.
The hypocrisy, of course, is that many Gingrich supporters now discount character after previously savaging Democrats with similar personal failings. But even those Republican voters who have now abandoned the character argument should, from a purely political standpoint, recognize Gingrich’s personal life as a liability of enormous magnitude.
This is particularly so where, as here, Americans of all political stripes respect the current president as a husband and a father and genuinely like the first family, whom they regard as wholesome and close-knit.
Indeed, so admired is the Obama family that the satirical online news publication, The Onion, spoofed them in an “editorial” claiming that the “openly loving” first family is a “slap in the face to the average American who only bears feelings of resentment toward relatives.”
The piece is humorous, but it highlights a political reality: If Republicans nominate someone with the personal history of a soap opera, it will only magnify the halo effect already surrounding St. Barack.
This calls to mind something one of my older relatives (an independent swing-voter) said during the 2008 presidential primaries. Asked whom (among the various candidates in both major political parties) she liked for president, this relative identified two: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Because they both have nice families.
And so they do.
Which means that if, in 2012, Republicans nominate Romney, the character of the candidates will become a non-issue, and the election can become a true contest of ideas.
If, on the other hand, Republicans choose Gingrich, the campaign will be waged on a personal level. America deserves better.