The news media seem obsessed with the serial affairs of a younger Newt Gingrich back in the last century. The anger of his second of three wives mysteriously became national news on ABC’s “Nightline” on the eve of the South Carolina primary. Millions watched Mrs. Gingrich II complain that Newt and the current Mrs. Gingrich III had done to her (while ill) just about the same thing that she and Newt had earlier done to Mrs. Gingrich I (while ill).
Do these marital dramas involving our leaders matter that much? At some point, does long-ago adultery earn a statute of limitations? Do we forgive a few, but not serial, transgressions? Do we really care to learn the back-and-forth, he said/she said details? And do leaders have to be exceptionally talented to atone for extremely poor marital behavior?
There have been plenty of unfaithful presidents, a few who could not even suppress their libidos upon entering the White House. Long before Bill Clinton’s dalliances, John Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Warren Harding allegedly had been unfaithful to their first ladies.
Given the value of stable marriages to society, it would be nice to think that such moral failure in our presidential candidates would be a telltale warning of later flawed governance - and that anyone who cheated on a spouse would also somehow cheat the country. But the truth, unfortunately, is more complex.
The extracurricular Mr. Clinton proved a better president than the faithful Jimmy Carter. The reckless Kennedy served more honestly than did the seemingly devoted Richard Nixon. The two-timing FDR was considered more successful than the monogamous Herbert Hoover.
Yet there are so many factors involved in both successful marriage and skilled leadership that it is impossible to isolate one trait - even one as critical as fidelity - as an absolute barometer of future success. Some of our most inspired civilian and military heroes - Charles Lindbergh, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, Martin Luther King Jr. - were rumored to have had relationships outside of marriage. New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was courting his third wife while still married to his second wife when Sept. 11 occurred, and yet he proved steady and reliable in a way mayors more monogamous have not during lesser disasters.
Why, then, are the marriages and indiscretions of an ascendant Mr. Gingrich now such an issue, apparently bothering the media more than primary voters?
The media usually prefer liberal politicians. Washington’s newspaper editors kept quiet about JFK’s frolicking, a silence that became near-conspiratorial. The renegade tabloid National Enquirer alone had to pursue the sordid affair of presidential candidate John Edwards. Matt Drudge forced the mainstream media to follow up on the recurrent but ignored rumors of Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. For most in the media, why sidetrack a fellow progressive’s enlightened agenda for America over an occasional hormonal urge?
But conservatives should expect such extra scrutiny. Just as populist Democrats raise eyebrows when they cozy up to Wall Street “1 percenters,” so too does the party of traditional family values set a higher bar for marital fidelity - and so faces the greater wage of hypocrisy. We don’t expect Bill Clinton to preach about the sanctity and stability of marriage, but we often heard that sermon from a sanctimonious Mr. Gingrich.
We are now an electronically wired 24/7 nation of the Internet, cable news, Twitter and Facebook, and sex is in our faces everywhere. In 1961, the old-boy newspaper guild alone could keep quiet JFK’s alleged rampant womanizing. Now, such a circle of silence eventually breaks down, and the lurid details seem all the more newsworthy. In a counterintuitive sense, the more dissolute Americans become, the more they hope that at least their presidents might resist the temptations of the modern world that they themselves cannot.
We all would like to think Mr. Gingrich’s long-ago adulteries must warn us that he would make a less reliable, more erratic president than the apparently faithful Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul or Barack Obama. But there seems little evidence from history that such a logical conclusion is always true - and none adduced so far by our biased media why it should be.
Maybe that’s why the voters of conservative South Carolina apparently did not think whom or how many times the mercurial Newt Gingrich has married mattered more than how he has so far debated and addressed the issues.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.