By Gail Collins, March 11, 2011
The presidential race is barely under way, but already we have had our first Big Thought. I am speaking, of course, of Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that he was driven into serial adultery by hard work and patriotism.
“There’s no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” he told an interviewer on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
You can imagine how much discussion this sparked. “Will ‘feeling passionate about this country’ become the new ‘hiking the Appalachian Trail’? ” asked Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair.
Really, the concept explains quite a bit. New York’s former governor, Eliot Spitzer, worked a lot. And right now New York City is reeling over the indictment of a powerful state senator, who turns out to have had a secret life in a waterside mansion that he shared with two male gynecologists and their mother. We are still sorting out the details, but I can tell you that this guy used to be the chairman of the Finance Committee. You can only sit through so many hearings on tax policy before the call of the wild starts ringing in your ears.
Also, whenever I hear “former Mayor Rudy Giuliani” I think of patriotism and round-the-clock dedication to the job. Also, about the time he called a press conference to announce that he and his wife were separating and the wife, who hadn’t heard, started telling reporters about an affair she believed Rudy had had with a female staffer.
Gingrich is asked about his personal life more often than most politicians. If you’re on your third wife, cheated perpetually on the first two, and are running for the Republican presidential nomination as a social conservative, these things come up.
The most famous story about Gingrich’s failed marriages is about his first wife, Jackie, who had been Newt’s high school math teacher before he appeared at her door and suggested a new equation. Jackie was recovering from surgery for uterine cancer when her husband walked in and started talking about the terms of a divorce.
She is not to be confused with the second wife, Marianne, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was visiting her mother when her husband called to tell her there was another woman.
Anyway, you can see how the topic of Gingrich’s home life would come up. Generally, he doesn’t seem all that thrilled by the invitation to explain himself. But he was very chatty on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Perhaps this was because of the way the interviewer, David Brody, phrased his question.
“Talk about a forgiving God?” he asked.
Newt was quite forthcoming about both God’s readiness to forgive him and the much, much better lifestyle he has embraced now that he’s found true love with Wife No. 3, converted to Catholicism and “learned an immense amount.”
People, can we all agree now that men who spend their early and middle ages betraying women right and left are not allowed to get credit for discovering the joys of monogamy at about the same time that they receive their first Social Security check?
Of course, Gingrich is being a better husband this time around. He’s 67! By then, most men have not just finished sowing their wild oats. The oats have been harvested, ground up, reprocessed and turned into soggy cornflakes.
“In general, in men and women, the sexual hormones decrease as you age. It’s a lot of work, dating and managing multiple partners,” says Rose Hartzell, a therapist at the San Diego Sexual Medicine Center.
God forgives you at any age, but voters should only reward reformations that occur before the miscreant receives his first copy of the AARP bulletin.
Gingrich offered up his analysis of the cause of his sexual indiscretions when he appeared with other presidential hopefuls at an event in Iowa sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. This is a group established by the former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who is recovering from a fall from grace himself. Reed’s involved secretly working with the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to block a ban on Internet gambling. Which I do not believe is the sort of thing you can blame on a heavy schedule and the flag.
In his public life, Gingrich’s rhetoric is less forgiving than apocalyptic. His speech in Iowa was laced with attacks on Democrats (“secular socialists”) and a call for “a political change so deep and so profound that nothing we have seen in our lifetime is comparable.” He has called Barack Obama “authentically dishonest,” and “a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president.”
If only Obama had committed adultery instead of health care reform, I’m sure they’d be getting along a lot better.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 12, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition.