Although a lifelong New Yorker, I’ve got a soft spot for South Carolina. My paternal grandfather was born and raised there, and my father lived there until just before he entered grade school in The Bronx. Dad’s Yankee relatives used to poke fun at him for his charming Charleston accent. But last week was an extremely serious time for South Carolina and its Republican voters as they went to the polls to nominate a candidate for president of the United States.
Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina Republican primary. I fear that the good citizens of that state have made a grievous error.
To say that Newt Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has accumulated baggage from his public and private behavior is a gross understatement. In the world of high-profile public figures, public and private actions merge into a seamless whole. Nowhere is this more true than in the major league contact sport known as American presidential politics.
Gingrich’s salacious private life, which reads like a cheap soap opera script, has been public knowledge for years. South Carolinians have shrugged it off. They have done so at their – and America’s – peril.
In a Jan. 2, 2012 online analysis, Washington Post blogger Bonnie Goldstein summarizes Gingrich’s disturbing marital history. Gingrich wife No. 1 was Jackie Battley, Newt’s high school geometry teacher and seven years his senior, whom Gingrich married in 1962. Years later, he would remark that Jackie was too old and not pretty enough to be a president’s wife. Gingrich divorced her in 1980 while she was undergoing cancer treatment. Wife No. 2 was Marianne Ginther, Gingrich’s paramour while Gingrich was married to Jackie. Vowing to derail his presidential bid, Marianne, a political conservative, recently gave an interview to ABC News alleging that Gingrich wanted an open marriage so he could continue his affair with former congressional aide Callista Bisek, 23 years Newt’s junior. Gingrich divorced Marianne in 2000 and married wife No. 3, Callista, who is now a fixture on the campaign trail.
As First Lady, Callista Gingrich would be the first wife of an American president known to be his former mistress. So much for moral authority.
In a Jan. 20, 2012 article for Fox News, psychiatrist Keith Ablow argues that Gingrich’s lurid love life will make him a stronger president. I think Dr. Ablow is nuts, but feel free to have a look at his claims.
Gingrich became speaker of the House in early 1995 after the Republican “revolution” the previous fall. Late that year, while Gingrich’s marriage to Marianne was on the rocks, he engaged in a game of chicken with President Clinton, resulting in a three-week partial shutdown of the federal government. It is widely believed that this event tarnished the Republican leadership and paved the way for Clinton’s reelection in 1996.
Amazingly, in a Feb. 25, 2011 Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post, Mr. Gingrich argued that shutting down the government again would be preferable to compromising with the Obama administration on the budget. In fairness to Mr. Gingrich, it was during his years as House speaker that the House produced a series of balanced budgets in line with the principles of the Gingrich-led “Contract with America.” That said, the idea that a government shutdown was required to produce those budgets is, at best, doubtful.
In 1997, Speaker Gingrich was reprimanded by a House committee for ethics violations involving federal tax laws regarding Gingrich’s reelection efforts. He was ordered to pay a $300,000 penalty. According to a Jan. 18, 1997 Washington Post story, the ethics committee described Gingrich’s actions as “intentional or… reckless.”
The ethics violations and government shutdown were two key factors that led to Gingrich’s resignation as House speaker in 1998. And in 1999, during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Gingrich inveighed mightily against the lecherous Mr. Clinton while the former House speaker was cheating on Marianne with Callista.
In a debate on CNN shortly before the South Carolina primary, the moderator led with a question about Marianne’s interview on ABC. Gingrich fired back, calling the question “despicable.”
Given the existential problems America faces – a sputtering economy, shrinking military and a president determined to remake the U.S. into a second-rate socialist state, to name just a few – beginning with such a question was inappropriate, a transparent effort to embarrass and provoke Mr. Gingrich, treatment that Candidate Obama never received from CNN or any other media outlet during the last election.
Full disclosure: I voted for Obama in 2008 and have suffered from buyer’s remorse for most of the past three years.
Unfortunately, the moderator’s hubris and Gingrich’s righteous indignation became the story. South Carolinians were more impressed by Gingrich’s zinger than the critical issue of Gingrich’s character. And with supreme irony that is all too common in the craziness of contemporary American politics, Marianne, in trying to destroy Gingrich, may have handed him a key victory, and, just maybe, the keys to the Oval Office.
Since 1980 the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination. And with Obama’s approval rating hovering around 45 percent, that winner has a damned good shot at becoming the next president.
Nobody except Gingrich and Marianne knows whether Marianne told ABC News the truth. Gingrich denies her allegations. Marianne stands by them. It’s a classic case of he-said-she-said.
Aside from the veracity of the charges, which are unknowable, the most important question, which no media outlet has explored, is why, a dozen years after her divorce from Gingrich, is Marianne hell bent on destroying him politically? Is she merely a woman scorned, or is she trying to save America from a reckless man? One thing’s for sure: Newt must have emotionally savaged Marianne during their marriage.
It is particularly odd that conservative South Carolina would so readily discount Mr. Gingrich’s multiple affairs and divorces, along with the sordid circumstances surrounding them. We’ve come a long way since 1945, when another prominent man with presidential ambitions, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, fresh from World War II, asked General George C. Marshall for permission to return from Europe so he could marry his driver, Englishwoman Kay Summersby, with whom Eisenhower had been having an affair. Marshall angrily denied the request and Eisenhower never broached the subject again.
That Gingrich is extraordinarily intelligent and a superb debater is undeniable. While those are desirable qualities in a president, they’re insufficient. History is full of murderous dictators and rogue presidents with brilliant minds and fantastic speaking skills. I’m sure that Mr. Gingrich, who has a Ph.D. in history, has thoroughly studied them.
In the primaries ahead, Republican voters need to ask themselves whether they’re willing to elect a Republican version of Bill Clinton with more hypocrisy. Gingrich describes himself as a hardcore conservative yet had no trouble blasting fellow Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s deficit reduction plan as “right wing social engineering”. Mr. Gingrich received $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac while denouncing that government-backed institution.
In recent campaign ads, former Rep. Susan Molinari and former Sen. Jim Talent, both Republicans, complained about Mr. Gingrich’s leadership while Gingrich was speaker of the House. Ms. Molinari described Gingrich’s stewardship as “chaotic”, while Mr. Talent said that Gingrich’s fellow Republicans constantly had to apologize for him. If Gingrich couldn’t manage the House, how is he going to manage the United States?
MItt Romney has his flaws, but sexual and financial scandals are not among them. Romney’s chief defect is his difficulty in speaking forcefully. When recently asked whether he would follow in his father’s footsteps and release twelve years’ worth of tax returns, Mr. Romney replied “maybe.” Romney subsequently remedied this mistake by releasing two years’ worth of his returns. Still, he could use some private lessons in decisiveness from Mr. Gingrich, whose recent debate performances amply displayed that trait. Perhaps a President Romney would create a new cabinet post for Mr. Gingrich: Secretary of Cojones. In that sense, Gingrich resembles Hillary more than Bill.
Americans like a good fight, and with an Obama-Gingrich matchup, they’d get one. It would make for great entertainment and television ratings, but when the hoopla dies down, and the (hopefully) new president’s hard work behind closed doors begins, a hard-charging, erratic intellectual bully will not be nearly as effective as a less oratorically gifted, competent manager with a scandal-free past.
What concerns me most about Mr. Gingrich’s propensity for confrontation is that a President Gingrich, instead of throwing a temper tantrum by beating up on the media or playing a game of political chicken, might unnecessarily order troops into battle. This could be catastrophic given the economic pressure and physical shrinkage the military is experiencing at this moment. Such an environment would be especially volatile due to public angst over American blood and treasure that has been spent with mixed results over the last decade.
With some justification, Democrats and the media are salivating at the prospect of a fresh sexual or financial Gingrich scandal. Mr. Gingrich is riding high right now, but, if his record has any predictive value, he could implode at any time. It would be much safer for everyone if he did so on the campaign trail rather than in the White House.