My column about Newt Gingrich last week generated a lot of mail — so let me dig a little deeper into this matter of political candidates and personal lives.
Here’s a start: In 1999 Gingrich said that voters "have the right to know everything about a presidential candidate, everything, because they’re going to be in an Oval Office with nuclear weapons, and you have the right to know in advance ‘Who is this person?’"
I agree. That means it’s fine for reporters to ask about Gingrich and Giuliani’s adultery, Romney’s religion and the personal lives of Clinton, Obama, Edwards, McCain and others.
One reason for the original Electoral College was so voters could vote for someone they knew personally, and an elector could vote for someone he knew. We’ve lost that now, and we need quizzical reporters and cooperative candidates to help us get back that personal touch.
After all, some candidates are stodgy but reliable and others are exciting idea-generators. It’s important to sort out which candidates are which, and crucial to find out who has personal stability and who has a tendency toward recklessness.
Gingrich in particular is almost walking proof of the importance of understanding biblical "calling" or "vocation." The biblical idea is that God, in his kind providence, has given each person talents and personality characteristics that suit him well for some jobs and not for others.
Think of it like a basketball team: An outstanding shooting guard might fail as a point guard, whose job is to run the entire offense. Gingrich puts up lots of three-point shots and hits a good percentage. He also crashes the boards at times and steals the ball from opponents.
And yet, when Gingrich was a point guard as Speaker, Bill Clinton stole the ball from him and then stole his lunch. At half time, Gingrich’s own teammates said he had to go: Current House minority leader John Boehner said that in the Gingrich era "there was no design … He’d make these giant pronouncements, and everybody would go, ‘Huh?’"
Gingrich himself, in an interview on July 30, 1999, the day his second divorce filing became public, said he did not plan to run for president and would instead keep busy "developing the next generation of ideas." He’s performed brilliantly in that sphere over the past eight years.
For a time he seemed content in doing what he does well. When I interviewed him earlier this year, he turned down the political opportunity to clear the air concerning his infidelities and stated, "About the most I’ll ever say is, I am a person. I have weaknesses … I have no ambition that requires me to get engaged in personal dialogues."
On Focus on the Family’s radio show last month, though, he for the first time publicly acknowledged the long-term adultery that shocked his colleagues in 1999 — not so much because of the infidelity itself, but because of his recklessness. Gingrich’s honesty was good, but does his declaration mean that he now has a presidential ambition that requires him to engage in "personal dialogues"? I hope not.
It’s still fun to watch Gingrich in action as he throws around ideas in speeches. His stump speech touches on the messes in foreign policy, domestic policy, technology policy, policy policy, and lays out something like a 141-point strategy to deal with the messes, including a blueprint on how the White House should reorganize itself.
Gingrich is now engaged in the calling for which he is best suited. He is not dainty. For example, he doesn’t think Islam should be called a religion of peace and says we need "an honest conversation" about it. He says that some of our politically correct discourse now is like "trying to describe Nazis without saying they’re German." That’s exactly right.
We need more talk of that kind. Wherever Gingrich speaks, people not only listen, but think. But is intellectual brilliance the most important ingredient for a successful presidency?