‘Wife #3 and I made a movie about the Pope, so my divorces and adulterous affairs don’t count.”
That’s how one blogger among many greeted Newt Gingrich’s recent announcement that he is seriously considering the possibility of running for president. Most primary-horserace watchers had long figured as much already. But his press conference ushered in an open season on the man and his personal life.
And it’s more than personal infidelity. It’s his professional record, too. It’s always hard to divorce one from the other (pun intended). After all, who we are is an integration of our personal and professional lives. And when you’re as public a figure as Newt is, was, and wants to be, these things can be impossible to forget.
Especially when it is morality that he talks about on the campaign trail.“Morality matters in economics because balancing the budget is an essentially moral, not economic, question about whether or not politicians ought to follow the same rules as the rest of us,” he told a Faith and Freedom Coalition forum in Iowa last week. He went on to say that “there should be no distinction between economic, national-security, and social conservatives,” and that “we should all base our principles on fundamental questions of morality.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Iowa-caucus voters tend to agree too. But the M-word uttered by Gingrich reminds people of how the M-word has played out in his life.
As does his wife’s prominence in the world of Newt. There’s Callista Gingrich on the homepage of his pre-possible-campaign website. There she is in the subject line of his weekly newsletter. There she is co-authoring a book with him. There she is in St. Peter’s Square narrating a documentary.
Gingrich didn’t help matters when he told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody that “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.” That sounded a bit like he was walking away from responsibility. Patriotism made me do it!
But in that same interview he went on to say 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. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness. I do believe in a forgiving God. And I think most people, deep down in their hearts hope there’s a forgiving God.” He also told Greta van Susteren: “I’ve made no bones about the fact that there were times I did the wrong thing.”
Simultaneous to his comments, many were gearing up for the Christian season of Lent. As it happened, Gingrich was being ridiculed — “Patriotism made me do it!” was the most common takeaway — on Ash Wednesday, the first day of 40 focused on sin and repentance, during which confession is encouraged in a heightened way.
I don’t know the heart of Newt Gingrich. Still, I probably know him as well as many of those who have commented on his reappearance as a potential candidate. Since we last saw Gingrich as an elected official, he has converted to Catholicism. And yes, he has made an excellent documentary about Pope John Paul II and the fall of Communism. Needless to say, none of these things constitutes a get-out-of-moral-jail-free card and, of course, people have been known to do things for politically advantageous reasons.
But Ronald Reagan made “trust but verify” a political proverb, and it needn’t only apply to the Soviet Union. Gingrich’s recent past has demonstrated a commitment to public policy, as well as to family and his newfound faith. Confessing our failure, working to mend our ways — these things are at the heart of Christianity. Of course, the voting booth is not the confessional, and for the most prudent reasons voters can’t be as merciful with their elected officials as they are with their neighbors.
Or can we?
Gingrich may be a public figure and, potentially, an aspiring president, but — like all politicians, celebrities, and the rest of us — he is only human. And his lack of finesse about his sins may simply bespeak a man not entirely comfortable talking publicly about his failures. Nevertheless, he has to. His past gives people cause for concern about his hubris. And, in being publicly reflective, he (probably inadvertently) is doing what he does best: teach.
Back in January, I wrote a letter with Seth Leibsohn — co-author, with former Cabinet secretary Bill Bennett, of the upcoming book, The Fight of Our Lives — welcoming freshman members of Congress to Washington and urging them to be good, to be decent. We all ought to. And we all have our temptations. But the nation’s capital can, in an intensive way, be a city of them. You may be away from your family. In many cases, you’re not living like a person should in terms of hours, diet, and social life. There are no excuses for slip-ups, of course, but there is value in knowing the worse angels of our nature are always there in order to better protect ourselves against them.
In this way, Gingrich actually provided a kind of public service in his not-most-articulate moment. If you can get past the ridicule, his serves as a cautionary tale: That free-bird feeling you get when you’re doing things you deem important for the world — it’s just a temptation. Beware. As he told the crowd in Iowa, the Newt Gingrich of 2011 hits the stage “with maybe a little more wisdom than” Newt Gingrich, king of the 1994 Republican revolution. Perhaps one who knows and tries to heed those humbling words: For dust you are, and to dust you will return.
As for that whole presidential thing: It’s far from the craziest thing ever. And, if we can all put cynicism aside just for a moment, maybe, just maybe, the fact that Newt Gingrich can seriously consider such a thing in 2011 is testimony to a little amazing transformative thing called redemption.
It’s the best kind of audacity. And it even has a place in politics.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.