Near the start of the last Republican debate, newt Gingrich was asked the sort of question that might have embarrassed a human being capable of that quaint emotion.
"Sir," said the moderator. "Does it trouble you that your ex-wife went on national television last night to claim that you are an amoral dirtbag? That, after she helped you break up your first marriage, you then cheated on her for six years straight? That you engaged in the nasty with your little adulteress in her very marriage bed? That when you were out of town, you would call your then wife to say good night, while the two-dollar tart you later married sat there listening in? Do you, sir, think that a man of your evident moral turpitude can possibly be qualified to lead our nation?"
We may have paraphrased a bit there, but it was something along those lines.
To which Newtie the Cutie, a man who has left shame so far behind that he can't even see it in his rear-view mirror, responded thusly (transcript here):
I think -- I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.
Really, Newt? You object to the destructive nature of the news media? How about the destructive nature of the Congress you led, with your unpopular and unsuccessful attempt to unseat the last president who actually provided peace and prosperity? But he went on:
Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.
Really, Newt? You can't imagine anything closer to despicable than that? How about serial adultery? How about being the first Speaker of the House in history to be penalized (by a Republican Congress) for ethics violations, to the tune of $300,00 -- and, incidentally, lying to the committee assigned to investigate you? Because if asking a guy's ex why she wouldn't vote for him is despicable, we really do think that cheating your country and lying to Congress are a little more so.
Now, Newt did deny the claims made by the second Mrs. Gingrich:
The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican.
Which part of the story his ex told on ABC was false? We have no idea, and the context is fuzzy. Surely the parts "he cheated on me with Callista" were true. Maybe the parts about calling her up to tell her he loved her were false. More likely, though, Newt meant to say that the part about asking his wife for an open marriage were false. Only he, she and God know who is telling the truth on that one. (We can't imagine, by the way, how any of his "personal friends" could vouch for claims like this. Did the Gingriches really share their bedroom talk with the tennis club?)
We suppose that in Newt's world, it is considered good tactics to respond to accusations in a self-righteous huff, whether or not they are true. To turn the rhetorical tables, and accuse your accuser of being -- get this! -- shameless simply for bringing it up. And NPR quoted some twangy halfwit as saying that Newt's counter-attack actually impressed him, on the grounds that "when the country gets into a fight, we want a pit bull on our side us, not a poodle." So maybe, in Newt's world, that display was a good tactic.
In Newt's world, which these days is the religiously-supercharged realm of Republican primary voters, it certainly makes sense to talk -- as he and the other candidates were quick to -- about "forgiveness" and even "redemption." Although God lurks in the language, the real question being posed is whether the voters can forgive Newt for his career of sleaziness.
But that's the wrong question.
First, let's dismiss the righteous bluster about his personal life being personal. In fact, the presidency is one of those jobs for which a person's sex life has always been taken into consideration. From the broadsheets that first broke the (truthful) story of Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemmings, to the (possibly truthful) slogan "Maw, Maw, Where's My Paw," right up to the (truthful) Gennifer Flowers accusations leveled at Bill Clinton during his own primary campaign, sexual misconduct has often been put on the table by a candidate's opposition. Newt knows this as well as anyone, and better than most.
Second, let's go back to that question of forgiveness. It's the wrong question, because the reason people ask questions about your past ethical lapses (sexual or legal) when you run for president is not that they want to condemn you to hell as a sinner. It is, rather, that they want some clue about your character, about who you are as a human being -- and what they can expect from you in the future. And yes, the evidence suggests that we can expect some indiscretions from Newt Gingrich in the future.
That doesn't have to be the end of his campaign. Consider Clinton. Frankly, the nation elected him already having every reason to believe that he was a serial adulterer -- as indeed he was, and continued to be while in office. And although the Lewinsky scandal was a distasteful thing (and we wouldn't let our sister within ten miles of that silver-haired devil), Clinton's approval ratings stayed remarkably high for a guy who was impeached. The country did not elect him because it wanted a saint; it elected him because it wanted an executive. He offered peace and prosperity; he delivered peace and prosperity; he was and remains a popular figure.
So, were we Newt, we might drop the phoney outrage and try something like this: "Yup. Thanks for asking that question right up front, John. The fact is that I have done some truly heinous things, in my public life and especially in my private life. I try to do better, but the odds are that I'm going to fail. I'm not offering this country a model of moral perfection. I'm offering it a model of intellectual leadership that ...." Well, you can fill in the rest.
Of course, we think Gingrich is a dope, and we'll happily tear into his inconsistent and impractical slew of bad ideas. As soon as he stops trying to stop deflecting legitimate questions about his leadership ability.
The funny part is that while Democratic primary voters might actually go for that line -- they virtually did with Clinton -- Republicans won't. The old ones would have, and our kind of Republicans still might. But not the new breed; they want saintliness more than they want statesmanship, and nothing could make that more clear than the re-election of George w. Bush. For them, Gingrich has to sing Amazing Grace, over and over. And he can't offer them intellectual leadership, because it has the word "intellectual" in it.
But if he just made a(nother) deal with the Devil, Gingrich might change his fortunes. Democratic primary voters, after all, don't care so much about a candidate's sexual conduct, and they positively relish their smarty-pants policy wonks.
So whaddaya say, Newton? Ready to come over to the Dark Side?