During the Republican Debate Thursday evening, January 19, just 2 days before the South Carolina primary, the opening question from debate moderator John King is directed to candidate Newt Gingrich, and it’s a highly provocative one:
As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview at the Washington Post and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it she says that you came to her in 1999 at a time when you were having an affair. She says, you asked her, Sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
While the question is being asked, Gingrich’s demeanor is calm, but his eyes cast a steely glare towards King, as if he is ready to pounce. Gingrich’s response is cool but forceful. “No… but I will.” The audience erupts in loud applause.
I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,
continued Gingrich. Suddenly the audience is on its feet, giving Gingrich a standing ovation. King asks if he is finished, but clearly Gingrich isn’t. He continues,
Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.
My two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it, and I am, frankly, astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.
It was an amazingly dramatic moment in these debates. Two days later, Gingrich went on to win a resounding 41% victory in South Carolina, besting chief rival Romney by a whopping 12 percentage points. Analysts and commentators credited this key Gingrich debate moment to his strong showing in South Carolina, as well as his continued momentum as the Republican nomination contest headed to the next state battleground in Florida.
That Gingrich’s debate “moment” generated such visceral empathy for him, with people apparently flocking to his side because of it, reminds me how certain well-made movies get audiences to root for the anti-heroes–charming guys who just happen to be bank robbers, ex-convicts, Mafia, even serial killers. These movies stir us to feel for these ethically-challenged characters by potraying them as flawed yet very human.
Perhaps the empathy for Gingrich in this case is quite understandable. Just as we mistrust government leaders, the media likewise seems untrustworthy in its biases. In our Internet age of reality shows, Twitter, Facebook and Google, it’s isn’t just public figures whose lives are continually exposed to all. The average person may also feel that their privacy is being eroded. Maybe we empathize with Gingrich because of our own growing discomfort with the overly intrusive presence of media in our own daily lives.
And yet the fact remains that Gingrich is a thrice-married man who carried on adulterous affairs during his first two marriages. Does such behavior reveal something negative about the moral character of a man and thus his ability to govern? Would it be unreasonable to surmise that Gingrich may have divorced his former wives as they became liabilities to his political ambition? Or is he a dramatically changed man, as his daughters from his first marriage have testified, one whose new religious faith has made him a very different person today than he was then?
Despite sharing the empathy many felt for Gingrich in his “moment”, I still think that the questions about character that arise from personal behavior are legitimate things to look at as we evaluate the worthiness of candidates for high office.
I’m not concluding Gingrich is one of the bad guys. He says he’s gone to God for forgiveness for his past mistakes. As a Christian, I certainly believe that the grace of God offered through Christ gives believers the chance to start fresh. Embracing Christ, we’re challenged to walk away from our past life of self-centered sin. We do so eagerly, knowing Christ died to give us this opportunity for a new life, and trusting that God will work in us to make us progressively less sinful and more like Christ. Is this what has happened in Gingrich’s life? Time will tell.
So perhaps we got behind Gingrich in his “moment” because we’re all longing for a more dignified national discourse, one where noble ideals and solutions are what is served up for discussion, rather than reality-TV trash fare. But intuitively and rightly, people still assess the moral character of a man based on behavior both public and private. If Gingrich is truly a changed man who aspires to greatness for this country and as a leader, he’ll need to acknowledge that as he moves forward.