Multiple marriages and even adultery are not automatic disqualifications for the presidency. If they were, the country would have a very different roster of former presidents and candidates. But when a political party decides that moralizing about personal conduct is as important as public policy, it inevitably makes some of its leaders vulnerable to the worst charges of hypocrisy.
In this political cycle, it is Newt Gingrich who has been unable to escape the toxic combination of infidelity and sermonizing. The stories about his three marriages have been known for years, but every time he seems to have escaped the wrath of Republican voters, they rise again.
On Thursday, they were resurrected by his second wife, Marianne, who told ABC News that he had sought an “open marriage” arrangement in 1999 so that he could have her blessing to conduct an affair while remaining married to her. She refused, the couple divorced, and the woman he had been seeing is now his third wife, Callista Gingrich, who accompanies him everywhere on the campaign trail. Mr. Gingrich later denied the claim.
Marianne Gingrich’s most devastating memory is that the day after his request, Mr. Gingrich gave a speech entitled, “The Demise of American Culture.” Among other things, he said in the speech that the elimination of prayer in schools had left American teenagers morally adrift.
Thirteen years later, campaigning for president, Mr. Gingrich is still trying to tell Americans how to run their lives. He supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He accuses Mitt Romney of being insufficiently anti-abortion, even pointing out that Mr. Romney expanded access to abortion pills. He lectures black people about valuing jobs and children in the purgatory of housing projects for lacking a work ethic. He signed a personal pledge to, at long last, “uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse.”
The abundant contradictions here are troubling even to some of his most fervent supporters. At a town-hall-style session in Beaufort, S.C., on Thursday, a former Marine drill instructor took the microphone to call Mr. Gingrich as inspiring as Winston Churchill — but also to tell him he remained troubled by his “lapses in personal judgment.” The Marine wondered how Mr. Gingrich could face President Obama in the fall with his past.
Mr. Gingrich responded that he knew the issue would dog him through the campaign, but that he and his wife decided “the country was worth the pain.” He told the Marine — and all voters struggling with the same question — that the decision was one that “you have to make.”
It’s magnanimous of him to be willing to allow voters to decide for themselves on the importance of his moral choices, since he and his party have been so unwilling to allow the public to make its own moral choices.
For too many Republicans, it’s not enough that Americans are free to pray in the house of worship of their choice; they want all children to be required to pray in school. They want to impose their own ideas about sexuality and abortion on everyone. And they love to accuse Democrats of being insufficiently pious. (Rick Perry’s exit from the race on Thursday may mean no more ads accusing President Obama of a “war on religion” and liberals of believing faith is a sign of weakness. Or, it may not, depending on how desperate the other candidates get.)
When Republican officials then get caught violating one of the Ten Commandments, they make an enormous show of contrition and repentance and ask for the public’s forgiveness. But as the hypocrisy level continues to rise, that forgiveness may become much harder to provide.