The conservative world lit up with delight Thursday night when Newt Gingrich gave CNN's debate moderator, John King, a good ol' fashioned rhetorical thumping on live television. King opened the debate with a question about Gingrich's ex-wife's allegations that he had asked her to agree to an open marriage.
Gingrich responded with a smackdown. He called the story "trash." And continued, "Every person in here has had someone close to them go through personal things. To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before a primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."
The audience rose to its feet in thunderous applause. King, on the other hand, looked stunned by Gingrich's barbed response.
Even though Gingrich has a messy personal history (several marriages, and admitted adultery), opening a presidential debate with such a question under normal circumstances might have been indefensible. But the fact that his ex's allegations were headline news at the time means it wasn't unreasonable to start the debate by allowing Gingrich to address the controversy and give his side of the story.
Nevertheless, by focusing viewers' attention on the issue of media bias, Gingrich was able to take what, for most candidates, would have been an extraordinarily awkward moment, and turn it in to a huge win. He pointed his finger directly at King and said he was "tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
The audience responded with another standing ovation. It was riveting television.
Republicans don't trust the mainstream news media, particularly CNN. So it's no surprise they responded positively to Gingrich's suggestion that the liberal media has it out for Republicans. Earlier this week Rush Limbaugh accused the mainstream media of a double standard -- focusing relentlessly on Romney's wealth, but saying little of John Kerry's vast fortune when he ran for the presidency eight years ago. Rush has a point there.
But were Republicans wise to stand up and cheer when Gingrich suggested that CNN had no right to question him about his marital history? I suggest not. Should Republicans pretend that moral character is irrelevant to politics? How could they?
Throughout the nineties, Republicans argued that Bill Clinton's sordid history with women, as well as his propensity for using the Oval Office closet like a $20 massage parlor, constituted proof that he was unsuitable for the highest office in the land. Are these same Republicans now pining for a Bill Clinton of their own -- a man who is a charmer with words, but who comports himself disgracefully behind closed doors?
Rick Perry and Sarah Palin -- two favorites among social conservatives, have voiced support for Gingrich in recent days. How is it that social conservatives are willing to overlook the moral blight in Gingrich's past? There are two main reasons. First of all, Gingrich is a gifted communicator, and they love that he can hand it to the opposition with such passion and aplomb. Secondly, they believe in the idea of redemption.
Many conservatives, particularly evangelical conservatives, have been talking about the theme of redemption with respect to the former Speaker of the House for some time. Since evangelicals believe that genuine faith offers everyone a chance to be "born again" spiritually, they also believe that Gingrich should be allowed that chance. Yes, he cheated on his ex-wife. Yes he's been divorced multiple times. Nevertheless, they believe that his conversion to Catholicism a decade ago should be taken seriously. He's a changed man, they say.
You know what? I too believe in the possibility of redemption. I too believe it is possible that Gingrich really is a changed man.
Here's the problem: If Gingrich is a changed man, he ought to have used his time on camera during the debate Thursday night to explain how and why that change came about. What greater opportunity could he have had to tell America how he made terrible choices in the past, but is now a new person, how he once was lost but now is found?
Instead, he chose to use that moment to portray himself as a victim of liberal media bias. He chose to point his finger and scold another. There was scarcely a hint of contrition in his demeanor. It doesn't matter if John King was motivated by a desire to damage Gingrich politically. Even if that were the case, King wasn't wrong to ask Gingrich to address his numerous, widely-publicized moral failures.
Conservatives claim that character counts. And they're right. It matters because a man who will lie to his wife will just as easily lie to the American people. There is no firewall between the personal and the political. We are all human, and all therefore flawed. But moral questions are not irrelevant to high office. And a politician who truly has undergone a moral redemption owes it to voters to communicate how and why that change came about.
Sorry, Newt, character matters.
I don't know who the real Newt Gingrich is -- if he is the man who walked out on his ex-wives years ago, lied to them, cheated on them, and regaled president Clinton for his adultery while doing the same thing himself, or if, on the other hand, Gingrich is a reformed, god loving, faithful husband, who has aged and matured and left behind his old ways. What I do know is that Newt Gingrich is a gifted communicator. And that if the latter is the case, he is fully capable of explaining his spiritual and moral transformation.
He owes that much to the people he seeks to lead.