Politicians can’t any longer talk about “moral character” without sounding like a stuffy Baptist deacon or a stiff Presbyterian elder. “Moral character” is no longer important in a presidential campaign, even to many conservatives and evangelicals. If it is important anymore, it is only as a talking point.
This was not always so. Barry Goldwater struck the match that ignited the modern conservative movement in 1964, and the tinder that fed the fire was “moral character.”
Nelson Rockefeller was the odds-on favorite to be the Republican presidential nominee that year. Everybody said so. But early in the season he discarded his wife of many years, married a younger woman named Happy and survived, but only barely, as a credible candidate. He entered the crucial California primary, which was then the final test leading to the national nominating convention, as the favorite.
Alas, nature intervened. Happy delivered their first child only days before the primary, reminding everyone again of what was widely regarded as “the sordid Rockefeller romance.” Barry Goldwater won the primary, the nomination, and lost the election to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide.
We’ve come a long way since then. The wild and wanton decade of the ‘60s swept away standards like so much household trash and celebrity replaced “moral character” as a crucial qualification for high office. Progress: it’s wonderful.
Newt Gingrich testifies to that. Newt thinks anything goes. He may be correct. Wife No. 2 revealed that when Newt demanded an “open marriage” in the spirit of fair play so he could share his wondrous self with all the women demanding to be let into his bed, she asked how he squared that with his blabber and bloviation about “family values.” That was easy. “People want to hear what I have to say,” he told her. “It doesn’t matter what I do.”
Good ol’ Bubba, bless his pea-picking heart, had a Hot Springs sense of shame that instructed him to lie about it, even though it led to impeachment and the humiliation of a nation that twice bestowed its highest honor on him. “I did not have sex with that woman,” he famously said, and then, as if trying to remember which one, added: ” … Miss Lewinsky.” Newt not only has no shame, but doesn’t understand why anyone thinks he should. “It’s not about sex,” says Victoria Toensing, a sometime television commentator and the lawyer for Wife No. 2, nor was it “about a wife rejected. Rather it was an insight into the persona of Newt. When he gets power he believes the rules do not apply to him.”
You can’t blame the slippery Newt for thinking so. But you can blame public inattention to the evidence of who he is. On election night in South Carolina the interlocutor for a CNN-TV focus group asked a young woman, identified as an evangelical Christian, why she supports Newt. She replied earnestly that it was important to have someone speak up “for morality.” Many conservatives have so despaired of finding someone who will return with interest the media mockery of the standards and values that served us for so long that they’re willing to cheer a four-flusher’s shameless hypocrisy as the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Newt’s a clever pol who understands that newspaper and television reporters and columnists are fat, easy and inviting targets.
Mitt Romney, who will never be mistaken for the people’s choice, is nevertheless finally going on the attack — not for Newt’s unimaginative lady-killing but for his lack of any qualities that would make him a president the country could be proud of. “He’s gone from pillar to post almost like a pinball machine,” Mr. Romney said. “From item to item, in a way which is highly erratic. It does not suggest a stable, thoughtful course, which is normally associated with leadership.”
Newt revels endlessly in his favorite subject. This is the common trait of politicians, of course, but Newt loves to talk and talk and talk, words colliding crazily with every vagrant thought that wanders into his head. He could never be trusted with a security clearance because he babbles about everything in an undisciplined stream of consciousness. “I think you can write a psychological profile of me,” he once told interviewer Gail Sheehy, “that says I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to.”
This qualifies him as a terrific subject for a newspaper interview. But for a president, not so much.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.