Some people are saying that Newt Gingrich turned in a masterful performance at the beginning of last night’s debate in South Carolina, when CNN moderator John King asked him about the allegations by his ex-wife that he had requested an “open marriage.” Gingrich responded in what has become an all too predictable fashion: he got angry. His tried and true method of railing against the media while challenging the premise of questions he doesn’t want to answer has served him well in many debates, and indeed, it seems to have worked again last night, for his heated response was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience. But for me at least, Gingrich’s manufactured sense of self-righteous anger is starting to wear a bit thin.
Don’t get me wrong, in early debates Gingrich was brilliant at skewering moderators who were asking unfair questions clearly designed to encourage squabbling and weaken the Republican field as a whole. Just two days ago, Gingrich expertly parried a patently ridiculous question from Fox’s Juan Williams, and he should be applauded for it. There is no question that the media has betrayed its left-wing bias since the start of the Republican primary campaigns last year. But in this case, John King’s question was not only fair, it was inevitable.
“I’m appalled,” Gingrich said, “you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that.” What exactly did he expect? This is a big story, and while there is a very real possibility that the allegations may be false, they certainly don’t paint the former speaker in a very favorable light. Was it a political move for ABC to release the story just two days before a presidential primary in a state where family values voters are extremely important? Assuredly, but that doesn’t negate the validity of the question.
Some may argue that a candidate’s personal indiscretions have no bearing on that person’s fitness for office, and these people are free to ignore such stories. Others, however, think that a president should be a man of principles and of upstanding moral character. Don’t these voters have a right, then, to enquire into the behavior of a candidate that reflects upon his character?
The other candidates wisely avoided the opportunity to go on the offensive over the allegations (although Santorum came close.) They have ben in the race long enough to realize that attacks on personal issues make one appear petty and mean-spirited. The story speaks for itself, and time will tell whether it will have any impact on Gingrich’s current surge in the polls. The American people are generally forgiving, and they can understand that nobody is perfect. However, there is a clear difference between someone who has a lapse in marital fidelity, either due to momentary weakness or having fallen in love with someone else, and someone who announces an affair to his wife and then expects her to live with it.
Gingrich’s hostile diatribe last night appeared calculated and manipulative, a classic attempt to deflect criticism from oneself by going on the attack. Maybe voters in South Carolina will sympathize with Gingrich’s outrage, but to this observer it came across as the sad last resort of a man who cannot answer for his past.