Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and not-quite-official 2012 Republican presidential aspirant, has been spouting dumb comments and tossing rhetorical stink bombs for decades. He recently suggested
that President Barack Obama is "so outside our comprehension" that his behavior can only be explained by his supposed "Kenyan, anti-colonial" mindset.
During the 1990s, his political action committee, GOPAC, disseminated a memo to Republican candidates with a list
of suggested words they should use when describing Democratic opponents. That list included "sick," "pathetic," "betray," "bizarre," "cheat," and "traitors."
In 1994, Gingrich jumped his own shark, claiming
that Democrats were responsible for turning the United States into a depraved society and pointing to Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman who had killed her own two children, as evidence of this. "I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things," he said. "The only way you get change is to vote Republican." (Smith, though, had come from a Republican family.
But one of Gingrich's most ill-considered remarks came this week when he appeared on CBN and insisted that his past two extramarital affairs were caused by an overabundance of patriotic devotion
. Asked about his infidelities, he said:
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. 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.
Gingrich was maintaining that he had committed adultery because he had worked too hard. And he had worked too hard because he loved America too darn much. (Is it merely a coincidence that he cheated on his first two wives after each had contracted a serious illness?)
With this self-serving comment, Gingrich further damaged his credibility -- a week after he botched what seemed to be the launch of his presidential campaign. (Or was it the launch of an presidential exploratory committee? Or just the launch of a website?)
Gingrich's my-love-of-country-made-me-do-it-twice spin brought to mind Woody Allen. Not simply because of the veteran filmmaker's scandalous personal behavior. During the 1992 campaign, Gingrich tried to turn Allen into anti-Democratic ammo for the GOP. That year, Allen ended his 12-year-long relationship with actress Mia Farrow, and the news emerged that he was in a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, a 22-year-old whom Farrow had adopted years before when she was married to conductor André Previn.
The Allen-Farrow-Previn affair became a major tabloid scandal, as Allen and Farrow bitterly fought over custody rights involving their three children and hurled nasty accusations at each other. Gingrich sought to tie this ugly matter to the Democrats, saying,
"Woody Allen having non-incest with a non-daughter to whom he was a non-father because they were a non-family fits the Democratic platform perfectly."
We can leave it to smarter moral arbiters to decide whether hooking up with a young woman who is the adopted daughter of your partner is worse than cheating on and then leaving not one but two sick wives. But when you compare Allen's and Gingrich's respective explanations, it's no contest.
Asked in 1992 about his affair with Previn, Allen gave a direct answer
I'm in love with her ... The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that.
This hardly excused his behavior -- fulfilling a heartfelt desire can be rather selfish, destructive, and wrong. But his statement was no excuse: he had done what he did because he wanted to. Pure and simple. He wasn't trying to weasel out. He was confessing: I acted on my passion.
Compare that to Gingrich's explanation: he was overworked, due to his passion for the United States, and inappropriate "things happened." Gingrich was justifiably derided on cable television, Twitter, and websites for trying to wrap his infidelity in the flag. A former Gingrich staffer called me and howled in laughter: "This guy thinks he can be president?" After all, if the pressures of being a congressman and, then, House speaker caused Gingrich to become a serial wife-cheater, what might the demands of the presidency do to the poor fellow? (Bordellos beware!)
People do make mistakes. They can be judged for them -- and voters (and film-goers) are free to decide what personal actions matter. Explanations, too, can be judged. When it comes to explaining the ways of the heart (or another organ), Woody Allen has been more honest than Newt Gingrich. That's not saying much for Allen, but it is for the guy who thinks he can be president.
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.