So-called "character" issues in presidential campaigns often look like silly luxuries when there are serious issues to be tackled in public policy. Certainly now, when the country is struggling out of a brutal recession, recovering from the human and financial cost of the war in Iraq, and trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan, we have some serious matters that ought to take precedence over any candidate's personal life. The question for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is whether—as feminists were fond of saying in the 1970s—the personal is, in fact, political.
Gingrich has been married three times and has acknowledged an affair. The fact that those details did not immediately derail his presidential bid is a sign that Americans no longer expect candidates to lead flawless lives. Lots of people get divorced—and it's arguable that it's a greater "failure" to stay in an unhappy marriage than to end one. And lots of people have affairs, which ought to be no one's business except that of the people directly affected. But from a practical political perspective, Gingrich, for all of his apologies for his behavior, may be on increasingly shaky ground.
The former speaker's affair, with a staffer who is now his current wife, could have been another statistic, another messy relationship situation. But Gingrich was conducting the affair while he was seeking to impeach former President Clinton for similar behavior. The hypocrisy is startling, but the arrogance is stunning.
That episode, however, seemed to fade in importance as Republicans looked to the conservative firebrand as a potential alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But another wrinkle has surfaced about Gingrich's first divorce. While Gingrich's website had claimed it was Gingrich's former wife, Jackie, who requested the divorce, CNN has unearthed divorce papers that state quite clearly that it was the former speaker who asked for the legal dissolution of the marriage. Again, that is arguably no one's business but the couple involved, but there are more damaging details: that Gingrich had to be prodded to keep up child support payments, and that Jackie's church had to collect donations to help her. And any claims to post-modern, post-feminist approaches to one's personal life kind of get erased if what a friend of Gingrich's said is true. Said the former Speaker, according to CNN:
You know and I know that she's not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a president.
That isn't a case of two people—or even one person in a couple—realizing that the relationship just isn't working for anyone anymore. That's a case of a highly ambitious person tossing out the mother of his children as though she were an old jalopy unfixable even with a new coat of paint.
How Gingrich has managed his marriages may be his own business. How he views females as a whole may bring back that old 70s feminist mantra. The personal is political.