Gingrich's "passion": Can patriotism really help explain adultery?

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March 9 2011 6:15 PM

Passionately Patriotic

Newt Gingrich's comments about his affair show he still hasn't learned to edit himself.

Newt Gingrich. Click image to expand.
Newt Gingrich

In a wide-ranging C-SPAN interview in September 2010, Newt Gingrich reflected on the crazy nature of running for president. Small moments or candid photographs can upend a campaign, he noted, mentioning Jimmy Carter's bout with a "killer rabbit," which came to symbolize his floundering re-election efforts. As a candidate, you cannot "control all of the events" of your campaign, he said. "Sooner or later" you will "get into some kind of roller coaster and you just have to figure out if you can survive."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Gingrich has opted to get into his roller coaster immediately. He announced he might be running for office less than a week ago, and already he's zooming down the tracks, cheeks flapping in the breeze. In an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network, he suggested that his love of country contributed to his marital infidelity.

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"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," said Gingrich. "And what I can tell you is 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."

Imagine for a moment that this was an electromagnetic pulse for comedians. The voltage surge of possible jokes was so strong that they were temporarily struck dumb. In that interregnum, don't focus on the copulation but the causation. Some might think that the former speaker is trying to excuse his actions. Maybe so, though he goes on to say his passion is no excuse at all. But if he is trying to explain his behavior, the explanation isn't that reassuring. Gingrich is saying that he couldn't handle the pressure.

This is known as being human. It's also a weakness that presidential candidates never admit. Entire campaigns are built around the question of whether you are tough enough to handle that 3 a.m. phone call (when it's the NSC, not from your mistress). After John Edwards' son died, he was so distraught he could barely function. This is a natural reaction for which no one could fault him. Yet, when he ran for president in 2004, he and his wife were careful not to highlight this fact, for fear that it would make him look like he couldn't handle the pressure of the office. (Clearly Edwards also needed outlets for public pressure.)

In his admission, Gingrich reveals yet another similarity with his former rival Bill Clinton. During a series of secret interviews with author Taylor Branch, Clinton said his affair with Monica Lewinsky began because he "cracked" from personal and political pressure. (Since Gingrich and Clinton were putting this pressure on each other, maybe a lot of the political drama of the mid-1990s could have been solved by group therapy.)

As a political matter, it's probably better to just cop to pure lust. That can be extinguished or not. Linking it to the stress of the job—while applying for an even more stressful job—suggests the possibility of more roller-coaster rides.

How will this play out politically? The conventional wisdom is that all talk of private moral failings hurts in Iowa, where 60 percent of Republican caucus attendees in 2008 declared themselves born again or evangelical. Gingrich's private behavior does come up in conversation with social conservative activists, though the theology of it should be more complicated. Gingrich, a Catholic convert, believes in a forgiving God. So do these voters. Moreover, they believe in the transformational power of Christ's love. Gingrich is a fellow believer and so, presumably, has been delivered from his previous inclinations by the power of that love.

The toughest audience, though, will be the comedians. Democratic and ruthless by nature, they're not likely to go easy on a political figure who is often ruthless with his opponents. It's not that comedians are all-powerful, but quips get repeated and passed around. It keeps this liability in the chatter. It's tough to run a campaign as the constant butt of jokes, and Gingrich's comment is sure to spawn hundreds: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen—and repair to the bedroom. Gingrich says the Democrats are destroying marriage. So I guess he's running in their primary. I regret that I have but one wife to give to my country. And I'm not even a professional comedian, in case you didn't notice.

In that same C-SPAN interview, Gingrich looked back on his rise and fall in the House of Representatives and said one of his weaknesses had been his communications strategy. "I didn't learn how to be careful with my words, didn't learn how to be cautious about what we were trying to get done in ways that were self-destructive." That's a lesson he's still learning.

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