Political sex scandals occur so often in American life that it’s surprising to see how shocked we can get about each new scandal as it arises. Bill Clinton got frisky with an intern. John Edwards had a wife with cancer, a mistress and a sex tape. (So that’s why he needed those fancy haircuts.) Herman Cain had not so much a “sex” scandal, but a “harassment and assault” scandal; that got put into the mill, too. Larry Craig had bathroom stalls; Mark Sanford had Argentina. And Newt Gingrich has a well-known habit of trading in his older, sicker wives for new ones.
So when ex-wife Marianne Gingrich told Nightline that in 1999 he had actually asked her to accept his long-running affair with current wife Callista while Marianne was dealing with a fresh diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and that (here’s the charming part) Newt broke that news on the phone, while she was at her mother’s house, well: It was hardly surprising. (He denies her allegations.) The odd nature of the request, the bizarre incapacity to see that his choices or timing might be particularly appalling, the childish misogyny of casting aside a sick wife like a broken toy – what’s the point of having a woman if it doesn’t even work right? There are newer, shinier ones to play with, after all – were all so characteristically Newt.
The most damning information we have about Newt Gingrich is not that he is a cruel man, or even a dishonest man: It is that he is a distinctly weird man. Everything about him – from his hobby of writing alternate-history novels to his strangely pathetic Twitter-turfing–resonates with the sense of a guy who just never figured out how other people work.
But this news was put into the mill, too, next to the tantalizing term “open marriage.” And so, once again, we are invited to consider how the proclivities of the political American penis stand in for American values.
In fact, there are a few things wrong with the popular conception of the story. First, that what Newt asked for was indeed an “open marriage;” although she used the phrase “open marriage,” what Marianne says he asked for was permission to continue an affair, not for a marriage in which both he and his wife could sleep with other people. And, second, that this substantially new information: As Raw Story’s Executive Editor Megan Carpentier points out, Marianne disclosed much of the story in an interview with Esquire in August 2010. That profile includes the line “[Newt] had also told the press that he and Marianne had an understanding.”
But the phrase “open marriage” resonates because it strikes deep at the heart of what we expect of our politicians, despite every bit of evidence we have that it’s not realistic, and despite the fact that we often don’t expect it of ourselves.
Politicians, Carpentier says, need “to be seen as Christian in most cases, to be seen as hewing to social mores, and to be seen as reflecting a certain kind of social value system that continues to be part of our political process.” Even though, she says, “increasingly few people abide by that ideal.” Although even infidelity researchers – yes, Virginia, there are infidelity researchers – point out that data on the success or failure of monogamy is hard to come by, one fairly conservative statistic states that about 15 percent to 18 percent of people who have been married have cheated on their spouses.
Nona Willis Aronowitz has written about the scandal for GOOD magazine, pointing out that actively trying to negotiate non-monogamy would, if true, be one of Gingrich’s more honorable moves.
“We’re at a point where we know many people fail at monogamy, but we still think it’s wrong,” she told me. “We want our political candidates to at least try to be right, to attempt to live a life we deem acceptable. Most Americans haven’t gotten used to the idea of non-monogamy as a viable alternative. We think of it only as a betrayal, which it usually is, given that public non-monogamy is so taboo. So we’re not kidding ourselves – we know it happens – we just want our politicians to be sorry about it.”
Willis Aronowitz points to Gingrich’s redemption narrative – his conversion to Catholicism, his statements about having gotten right with the Lord and himself – as a means by which he has escaped consequences. Then again, there is also the fact that Gingrich has responded to this latest re-surfacing of Marianne’s story by denying any “understanding,” and with thundering condemnation that is nearly Biblical in and of itself.
“To take an ex-wife,” he told John King at the South Carolina debates, “and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
Given that the man has imagined the Nazis successfully conquering Europe, that’s no small thing.
And his campaign has willingly pushed a narrative that is even more popular amongst sexist Americans than redemption: The idea that having told this story once or twice renders Marianne a crazed, vindictive harpy on an eternal quest for revenge. Within Newt’s stentorian disapproval, one could also hear the rallying cry of terrible husbands across the nation: Why can’t you just let it go?!?
On Saturday, two days after Marianne’s new old news broke, Gingrich easily won the South Carolina primary. Whatever Newt’s flaws are – and it would indeed be fun to see him run a family-values platform against a president with a marriage that is by all accounts loving and functional – they have not prevented Americans from voting in his favor.
“People actually misunderstand what’s going on,” Gingrich said, in his South Carolina victory speech. “It’s not that I am a good debater. It is that I know how to articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people.”
On the one hand, Newt Gingrich has always generously supplied the liberal columnists of the world with their best punch lines. On the other hand, in some senses, the man might actually be right.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.