Monday, January 23, 2012

Newt's Love Life

There is an argument that the circumstances regarding Newt Gingrich's marital history is relevant My own view is that, in terms of assessing character, other people's marriage circumstances are almost always nonjusticiable. Relationships are normally complex and we almost never can know enough about someone else's life to assign "blame" (or even to know whether there is "blame") for martial woes. This is not moral relativism. It's a moral humility that recognizes that this is an area of life that outsiders can't really know enough about to judge.

Still, family break-up is an enormous problem for children and, in particular, children of low income parents who often lack the resources and social capital to handle the consequences. Some conclude that the "bad example" offered by Gingrich (who, you have to admit, has a tough history) is appropriately counted against his candidacy.

A good argument for that point of view. alneit from a Catholic perspective,  is offered by Ramesh Ponneru. But the argument - as Ramesh recognizes - goes only so far. It suggests that Newt's marital past is a negative factor, but not a dispositive one.

Here's an historical question and a thought experiment. First, the historical question. Which of the following group of Presidents was stronger: Teddy R., Harding, FDR, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Reagan and Clinton or Taft, Coolidge, Nixon, Carter and the Bushes, There are, I think, good and bad in both groups but most people on both sides of the aisle would probably chose the first. I think you know what divides them.

Here's the thought experiment. Imagine that you are a committed supporter of Barack Obama (perhaps you are) and believe that his re-election is critical to the future of the country. In a tearful press conference, Michelle Obama announces that her husband has has an affair and proposed that she allow him to continue on with his mistress. She refused and he has decided to divorce her and marry the other woman.

Are you going to vote Republican?

The answer, for most liberals that I know is "of course, not" and I don't blame them. As much as they might disapprove of the President's conduct, the fate of their country (as they see it) trumps whatever judgment they might form (if they can form a judgment) about his behavior as a husband.

But what about that cardinal sin of a morally agnostic society, hypocrisy? Aren't the Republicans the party of family values? I have at least two problems with that. First, are we now to presume that the Democrats oppose family values? I know that they get accused of that, but I haven't heard them accept the criticism. Second, there is a difference between fostering an ideal and recognizing that it cannot always be achieved. This is one of the reasons that concern about marital dissolution and its impact on kids (for what it's worth, the children of Gingrich's first marriage were older at the time of his first divorce and he had no children with his second wife) does not imply the prohibition of divorce. The promotion of an ideal does not require us to ignore human fallibility or the nature or real world relationships.

Interestingly, the Marianne Gingrich story seems to have had no impact in deep red South Carolina where Gingrich handily carried both evangelicals (itself a nice trick for a Catholic) and married women.

I am not a fan of Newt Gingrich and I'm not supporting him for the nomination. He is a man with enormous gifts and enormous flaws (these things often go together). He's got more problems than serial monogamy, But if the choice is between Newt and Barack Obama, the public good requires, in my view, voting for Newt.


Nick said...

I would normally agree with you if he kept his political speeches and stumping to purely public, political matters. If he concentrated on talking about the debt, foreign policy, etc. then I would agree with you.

However, he hasn't done that. Much of his pre-presidential speaking has dealt with "family values", "traditional family values" and the importance of marriage and traditional marriage in our society.

As soon as you bring those things up... as soon as you make them issues as he has done many many times, then you no longer get to say that "my private life is private". Now you open yourself up to "cross examination" and if you can't even come close to living up to the ideal that you say is necessary, then its a significant problem.

Anonymous said...

"The public good . . . requires voting for Newt." Under no set of circumstances is this statement true.

Rick Esenberg said...

I understand that reaction and I'm not sure how much Newt talks about these things but it seems to me that any honest discussion of poverty in the US has to address its relationship to family break up. If that's true, then its true whether or not Newt is unlucky at love or a philander or whatever.

I do agree that there would be a set of policies that it would be hard for him to advocate - e.g., a repeal of no fault divorce laws - but that's not how the conversation normally goes.

Anonymous said...

I agree Newt is a talented and flawed person (apparently ask anyone who has ever worked with him). But why can't he advocate for traditional values and acknowledge that he has not always lived up to them. They are hard to live up to but there are personal and societal benefits to living up to them and we should all try to live up to them even though we know no one will be perfect. Someone who has been through the mistakes or violations of traditional values may be uniquely positioned to know why and be able to articulate why traditional values are good. Also much of his traditional values talk is directed at work ethic and thrift type issues.

Unknown said...

Marriage and family are only for the one percent... Anybody who says different is a racist.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure how much Newt talks about these things" Seems like there's any number of outlets from major media organizations to minor bloggers who cover not just what he said but the agenda he pursued while in Congress ad nauseum.

Anonymous said...

So, repeated adulterous behavior is not a problem for a conservative. Hokay.

How about that Newt was a deadbeat dad? If that's okay with conservatives now, that's not even only about family values; that's about fiscal and other policies, too. What in the heck do conservative stand for now? Huh.

Rick Esenberg said...

Anon 8:26

If you want to say that Gingrich was a "deadbeat dad," you should be able to prove it. I understand that people have tried to make that allegation from a single paragraph in a court filing but my guess is that you wouldn't wanted to be branded in that way without stronger proof.

I have no idea whether that allegation is true but my sense is that, if it was, it would be a more salient allegation and Newt's kids wouldn't be supporting him.

But perhaps yuu know something that I don't.

Anonymous said...

You have to admire the chutzpah of Gingrich -- using the children spawned with Wife #1 to trash Wife #2 for her comments on Wife #3.

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