Newt Gingrich confessed last week to what had been reported about him for years. In a radio interview with evangelist James Dobson, the former House speaker admitted to an adulterous romance with then-House aide Callista Bisek while Washington was embroiled with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s “relationship” and Clinton’s subsequent impeachment proceedings.
“I asked you if the rumors were true that you were in an affair with a woman who obviously wasn’t your wife at the same time that Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were having their escapade,” asked Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family
in Colorado Springs.
“Well,” Gingrich replied, “the fact is that the honest answer is yes.” He added: “There are times that I have fallen short of my own standards. There’s [sic] certainly times when I’ve fallen short of God’s standards.”
Gingrich eventually can debate the moral gravity and ultimate consequences of his actions when he meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Here on Earth, however, we sinners can judge the political relevance of his philandering.
The Georgia Republican’s extramarital exploits coincided with the entire impeachment drama. Both of these affairs were in full swing during the 1998 midterm election. Clinton’s legal woes involved charges that he perjured himself and obstructed justice to conceal his sexual adventures with Lewinsky, lest knowledge of their behavior bolster Paula Jones’s sexual-harassment lawsuit against the 42nd president of the United States. Still, in the court of public opinion, Clinton was in trouble, not on the narrow grounds of lying under oath, but for the broader impropriety of sexual entanglement with a significantly younger subordinate.
In this respect, Gingrich’s actions mirrored Clinton’s almost perfectly. Gingrich was involved with a woman 23 years his junior. She worked for the House Agriculture Committee, and thus served the legislative body over which Gingrich presided. While Gingrich did not commit perjury, his narrative and Clinton’s otherwise paralleled each other like a pair of railroad tracks. (One key difference is that Gingrich married Bisek, making her his third wife.)
Imagine if Gingrich and Bisek had been discovered, say around October 25, 1998. The resulting hypocrisy bomb would have rattled every American from Seattle to Key West. Struck by flying hubris, voters overwhelmingly would have punished Gingrich’s fellow Republicans for prosecuting Clinton while America’s most prominent Republican was entangled in uncomfortably similar conduct. Accurate but legalistic pleas that Clinton committed adultery plus perjury, while Gingrich never lied under oath about his infidelity, would have elicited enormous laughter, if not outright scorn — fairly or unfairly.
Rather than chop the GOP’s majority from ten seats to five, as happened anyway, Democrats likely would have recaptured the House. All rise for Speaker Dick Gephardt (D., Mo.). Rather than battle Republicans to a draw, Democrats could have taken the Senate with a five-seat net victory. That would have made then-Senator Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) majority leader. After just four years, the “Republican Revolution” would have become ensnared in its own panty hose. With Democrats once again controlling Capitol Hill, Clinton could have spent his last two years building socialism. With that added momentum, then-Vice President Al Gore might have tipped the skin-tight 2000 election thismuch in his direction, prompting his — not G. W. Bush’s — inauguration.
It is entirely possible, if not probable, that much or all of this would have transpired, simply because Newt Gingrich got his brain caught in his zipper.
Gingrich never should have commenced this faithlessness in the first place. (As it was, the Washington Post reports, it lasted six years). At the very least, Republican voters and conservative activists had every right to expect that such a high-profile leader at such a pivotal moment would have told his mistress that their hot-and-heavy hijinks had to cool on the back burner until after Election Night 1998.
While that certainly would not have been the moral high road, it would have been the cost of admission, given the naked, hardball politics inherent in such a volatile situation.
Gingrich went beyond a legalistic critique of perjury when he wrote in the May 22, 1998, Human Events that Clinton’s handling of the Lewinsky mess had lowered the presidency to “a level of disrespect and decadence that should appall every American.” He added that the presidency now appeared around the world as a “rough equivalent of the Jerry Springer show.” References to “decadence” and Jerry Springer seem to surpass disapproval of lying under oath.
Also, as Ceci Connolly and Howard Kurtz reported on the front page of the October 30, 1998 Washington Post, Gingrich was intimately involved in developing political TV commercials that capitalized on the Clinton/Lewinsky situation, again exceeding criticism of perjury. “Up until the final edit,” Connolly and Kurtz wrote, “Gingrich was kept apprised and suggested adjustments in the commercials, one adviser said.” They continued:
The harshest attack ad, which hits Clinton for not telling the truth, is running in just three southern districts and is viewed as a bone to disenchanted conservatives there. A second spot, in which two mothers discuss “What did you tell your kids,” is being shown in moderate suburban areas such as Santa Barbara, Calif., and parts of New Jersey. The final commercial, which uses the infamous video clip of Clinton wagging his finger as he denied the Lewinsky affair, is airing in places such as Utah, Idaho and Cincinnati, where Clinton is very unpopular.
What about GOP presidential contender Rudolph W. Giuliani? “America’s Mayor” also has been married thrice, most recently after a particularly tumultuous divorce. Giuliani’s actions were not hypocritical. While his deeds were hardly ideal, he did not preside over a high-stakes condemnation of someone else’s marital woes — perjurious or otherwise — while concealing his own shortcomings. Also, his marriage to Donna Hanover unraveled in the sunshine, not the shadows, as he revealed his relationship with Judith Nathan, today’s Judith Giuliani. No potentially explosive surprise ticked quietly behind the curtains, poised to shred Giuliani and his allies.
It may be unfair, unrealistic, or even inappropriate for the Right to insist that our leaders be moral paragons worthy of an episode of Father Knows Best. However, we should demand that they demonstrate basic political good judgment, lest they jeopardize the ideas and policies we toil to advance. The fact that this meant so little to Newt Gingrich back then reveals breathtaking immaturity, self-absorption, and recklessness that disqualify him from the Oval Office.