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Newt Gingrich and Other Men Who Love (Their Country) Too Much

March 21, 2011

Illustration by Kate Holterhoff

Newt Gingrich, a possible candidate for the 2012 presidential election, cheated on and divorced two wives. Now he has to explain himself to conservative Christian voters who think that marriages are, well, kind of a big deal. But what about everyone else? Should they care too? Yes, but not for the reasons you might think.

Earlier this month, Newt Gingrich found himself having to explain cheating on, and later divorcing, two wives over the course of his political career. In an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Gingrich defended his indiscretions by claiming that patriotism—love for his country—kept him from sustaining his marriages:

There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate. And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them.

It’s a strange argument, although not a new one. Many careers are notorious for destroying marriages. Medical doctors and lawyers come immediately to mind. The story goes like this: people who take these jobs work too much and that overwork leads them to neglect their personal lives, including their marriages. Frequent divorces result. But Gingrich takes it a step further, attributing that overwork not to an inability to manage his time and energy responsibly, but to overwhelming feelings of patriotism.

Gingrich’s excuse reminds me of that question they always ask in job interviews: what would you say your biggest weakness is? You might be tempted to say, “I work too hard” or “I care too much.” But you shouldn’t, because these are extremely lame things to say. They’re lame because it’s so obvious that you’re trying to deal with a problematic subject—namely, your weaknesses—by making yourself look better rather than confronting it. It might be a good strategy if you can do it without anyone noticing. But when Gingrich did it, people noticed.

When Gingrich’s political career suffers because of his personal life, we confront a much larger question: where is the division between public and private? At what point do candidates’ private choices become irrelevant to their efficacy as politicians and public figures? When we look at a candidate’s personal life, and find that life wanting, do we dismiss them as a candidate?

A common answer to this problem is that politicians’ personal lives do not matter and that to argue otherwise is to turn our political culture into a circus. The response is invariably that a politician’s life can tell us a great deal about their character and integrity, which are important qualities in a leader. Philip Klein at the American Spectator points out that Gingrich would have a hard time taking this position. He did, after all, lead the effort to impeach President Clinton for lying about his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky. (Remember that dress? Good times.)

I’ll raise another problem with a this-is-none-of-our-business point of view on Gingrich’s case. Gingrich recently secured a huge sum of money to help defeat judges who struck down Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage. One could easily argue that a politician who wants to restrict the ability of others to marry ought to be accountable for the sanctity, or lack thereof, of his own marriage(s). That’s a tricky argument too, though, because who hasn’t taken a stance on same-sex marriage at one time or another?

When a politician makes a really loopy argument, we often assume that they’re stupid or crazy or just not paying attention. And sometimes we’re right. But sometimes people take strange positions because they’re the only positions they can take. And you have to hand it to Gingrich—patriotism-driven infidelity is a new one.

If you want to know more:

  • The title of this post is a deliberate reference to Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood.
  • The public/private divide is a huge issue for scholars who study politics and public deliberation. Many of the political movements of the last century have been based on the idea that “the personal is political,” especially feminism and LGBT rights. The argument is that some problems, like domestic abuse, can only be addressed when we bring them out of the private realm and into the public sphere. See Nancy Fraser’s seminal article “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.”
  • On the other hand, some scholars argue that we have lost track of what ought to be private, turning politics into a debate over character rather than issues. See S. Michael Halloran’s “Aristotle’s Concept of Ethos, or If Not His Somebody Else’s” for a short example of this dilemma. He uses David Frost’s famous interviews with Richard Nixon as a case-in-point.
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