Newt and Marianne

Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne gave her much-ballyhooed interview to ABC News on Thursday night, just hours after the Republican presidential candidates gathered for a debate, which was delayed several minutes while Newt Gingrich snacked upon barbecued CNN moderator. 

The interview with Marianne was a flop, as it contained exactly one new “revelation,” which had already been teased for several days: Newt Gingrich asked Marianne for an open marriage.

Except that’s not what he did, and it’s not a new revelation.  Here is the verbatim exchange between Marianne Gingrich and Brian Ross of ABC News.  Note that “Callista” refers to Callista Bisek, the woman Gingrich was having an affair with at the time.  She later became his third wife.

MARIANNE GINGRICH: I said to him, we’ve been married a long time, and he said, “Yes, but you want me all to yourself.  Callista doesn’t care what I do.”

BRIAN ROSS: What was he saying to you, do you think?

GINGRICH: He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused.

ROSS: He wanted an open marriage?

GINGRICH: Yeah, that I accept the fact that he has somebody else in his life.

ROSS: And you said…?

GINGRICH: No.  No.  That is not a marriage.

So the “open marriage” bombshell is Marianne Gingrich’s interpretation of what Newt Gingrich wanted, and it has only recently occurred to her to begin using the phrase.  As far back as the summer of 2010, when she related this exact same incident to Esquire magazine, she said he asked her to “just tolerate” his affair with Callista.  Calling this an “open marriage” injects connotations of a swinging, deviant lifestyle, which might end up with Callista and Marianne watching TV together while they waited for Newt to get home from his latest amorous adventure.

This is not to diminish the offensiveness of what Newt Gingrich did.  Asking your wife to tolerate an affair with another woman is absolutely despicable.  However, the entire point of the ABC News interview – lavishly cross-promoted by the rest of the media, to the point of throwing it in Newt Gingrich’s face as the very first question in a crucial presidential debate, two days before the South Carolina primary – was to repackage old news, not break a new story.  Marianne Gingrich didn’t finish Newt off in 2010, so the media wanted to give her another shot at him.

This is the precise opposite of the way the media treated Bill Clinton, who was given a softball 60 Minutes interview in January 1992, for the express purpose of helping him bury entirely accurate allegations about his extramarital activities.  William Jefferson Clinton lied through his teeth on national television to deny his 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers. 

At the time, ABC News took a poll and found a huge 70 percent majority of respondents took the cues they were being carefully fed by the media, and declared Clinton’s extramarital affairs were strictly between him and Hillary.  In other words, if Hillary was okay with Bill’s tomcatting, then it had no bearing on his fitness for office.  Obviously, Marianne Gingrich is not okay with Newt’s affair.  Is that really the only criteria that matters?  Affairs, and even “open marriages,” are just peachy as long as the missus is on board?

Media coverage of these scandals profoundly influences the way the public sees them.  All of Clinton’s scandals were immediately declared “old news,” right up until the one that left fresh DNA on a blue dress.  The media studiously avoided covering them, because the pro-Clinton press understood that damaging stories survive and grow with repetition. 

To bring up Clinton’s infidelity during his presidential campaigns was to risk becoming a pariah, a prudish fanatic fixated upon the past.  The idea that Clinton’s personal character had the slightest bearing upon his fitness for office was angrily dismissed as lunacy.  The far-left web organization was originally formed to encourage “moving on” from Clinton’s character and focusing on the issues.  The White House was given free rein to intimidate and destroy women who dared to come forward and accuse Clinton of having affairs with them.  They were laughingly dismissed as “nuts and sluts.”  Clinton hatchet man James Carville said of accuser Paula Jones, “Drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”

Can you imagine what the media would do if Newt Gingrich, or any of his operatives, tried going after Marianne like this? 

As it stands, the impact of the Marianne Gingrich story will be shaped, in no small measure, by the opinions voters form about each of them.  Will those who watched the ABC interview see Marianne as a tragic, sympathetic figure, or a bitter woman still trying to take a piece out of her hated ex-husband 12 years after their divorce?  Will they applaud Gingrich for castigating the media and speaking of the “personal pain” that everyone knows, or will they see him as a cynical politician who couldn’t have been more delighted when CNN’s John King gave him a pitch he could knock out of the park?

Does the balance of sympathy change if the New York Post’s report this morning is accurate, and Marianne Gingrich once had an affair with a married man – a local boss for the United Auto Workers union, in fact?  The Washington Post is said to have reported on this back in 1995.  Curious how no other media organizations seem to think it’s relevant today.  Perhaps it would make the “narrative” too complicated.

Sin, redemption, absolution, and forgiveness are weighty topics.  Gingrich’s daughters have fanned out to defend him, with Jackie Cushman telling ABC News, “He’s a much different person than he was then.  He’s grown closer to God.  His faith in God has grown, and I think what people need to remember is that this happened a very long time ago.”  Some will look to Gingrich’s conduct in his current marriage as a better indicator of his character.

During the Thursday night South Carolina debate, Gingrich’s rival Rick Santorum observed, “This is a very forgiving country, which understands that we are all fallen.”  Some of us fall further than others, and some voters worry that Gingrich might fall again.  Forgiveness is tempered by apprehension over an uncertain future that leaves us very little margin for error when we make our momentous decision in this presidential race.

On the other hand, another of Gingrich’s rivals once said that “I’ve always been of the opinion that if you’ll cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner.”  That was Texas governor Rick Perry, who went on to endorse Newt Gingrich after he dropped out of the presidential race, saying “there is forgiveness for those who seek God.” 

If there’s one thing we should have learned from Bill Clinton, it’s that his spin artists were absolutely wrong: character does matter.  Measuring it remains a challenge to our reason, philosophy, and faith.