“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said. “It’s as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
At issue is the claim by Mr. Gingrich’s ex-wife, revealed this week in an ABC News interview, that the former House Speaker asked that she agree to an “open marriage,” an arrangement that would allow him to pursue sexual relations with other women.
As someone who has studied and reported on traditional American culture, I was startled by the crowd’s exuberant reaction to the exchange.
Social conservatives have elevated marriage and sexual mores into central themes in our political culture. They have suggested that a permissive, licentious 60s-culture sensibility has eroded the nation’s moral strength.
Mr. Gingrich himself has argued repeatedly that a narrow, traditional definition of marriage should be one of the building blocks of a decent American society, and should be a defining issue in our politics.
He actively worked to impeach President Bill Clinton because of Mr. Clinton’s dishonest dalliances, throwing the nation’s Congress into a lengthy, turbulent political crisis.
Yet when the same yardsticks are applied to him, when he is asked bluntly whether he measures up to the political and cultural standards he has demanded from others, Mr. Gingrich views it as “despicable.”
Frankly, his response isn’t surprising or particularly difficult to understand. Humans have always been fickle creatures. The Bible is full of characters who talk the talk but can’t walk the walk.
What I don’t understand is the conservative audience’s response. Given Mr. Gingrich’s own exhaustive efforts to link our private and political morality, surely it’s fair to ask him these questions.
This is especially true because, so often in recent history, those who have built their political careers on “family values” have turned out to be indulging in secret behaviors that are wildly out of sync with their professed morality.
They push for rules — often based deliberately on their religious views — that will define other people’s freedoms when it comes to marriage, adoption, military service, abortion, sex education, contraception, and a wide variety of other issues.
Then they give themselves the moral license that they would deny, through the power of law, to other citizens.
This strikes me as a very good question with which to begin a presidential debate.
As one of the leading traditionalist politicians in America, Mr. Gingrich needs to explain just how closely he has adhered to the traditions he claims to defend.