Here's the problem with yet another men-behaving-badly story that came out Thursday, the one in which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's second wife, Marianne Gingrich, told ABC and the Washington Post that he asked her for permission to have an affair, or as she put it, an "open marriage." When she refused, he divorced her and hasn't spoken to her since. And this was after he asked his first wife for a divorce when she was suffering from uterine cancer, in order to marry his second wife. Gingrich said at last night's debate that the "open marriage" story is false, but given his history of affairs and divorces, Marianne Gingrich's allegations strike me as credible. Who knows what the truth really is between two people, but if I had to pick, I'd believe Marianne Gingrich's version over Newt's version. Her allegations fits with the track record he's got: you just never know what's going to come out of his mouth—including asking for an "open marriage."
Anyway, here's the problem: most voters don't think divorce is a deal-breaker when it comes to voting for a candidate. We all know people whose lives have fallen apart and whose marriages have collapsed, for any number of understandable reasons. And frankly, most of us really don't care about candidates' personal lives or dating habits. But what voters do object to in an elected official is an attitude of "the rules don't apply to me." That's why we don't like politicians who don't pay their taxes, or who hire illegal workers, or who use official funds for personal expenses. It explains the lingering resentment many people had for late Sen. Ted Kennedy after Chappaquidick, for example. And while many misbehaving politicians eventually get caught and punished for their deeds, it's that arrogance that started it all that gets people so mad.
This also explains why so many people are uncomfortable with the latest revelations about Newt Gingrich's past. Clearly he doesn't think the rules apply to him at all. Being a rule-breaker may be a good thing—in terms of innovative solutions, policy proposals, and even campaign decisions that defy conventional wisdom—and Gingrich is certainly that way. But when it comes to questions of character and integrity and doing the right thing, the rules are there for a reason. Too many people in Washington these days put themselves ahead of all else. The number of times Gingrich uses the word "I" is remarkable, and there's a reason he's constantly comparing himself to great figures in history. He's got a grandiosity, an arrogance about him, that is striking. His ego is huge.
If it's true, there's a sentence in the Post story that says volumes: "He said the problem with me was I wanted him all to myself," Marianne Gingrich said. "I said, 'That's what marriage is.'" On so many levels, Newt Gingrich doesn't think the rules apply to him. He's big, too important, too historic a figure in his own mind, to live by the rules the rest of us do. In that sense, Newt Gingrich will never be one of us.