This week Newt Gingrich promised the Iowa-based Family Group that he would “uphold the institution of marriage.” Though Gingrich didn’t sign the 14-point pledge that some of his opponents (namely Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum) signed, he did send a letter to the group in which he agreed to defend marriage “through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others.” This includes “vigorously supporting the Defense of Marriage Act” (also known as DOMA), which defines marriage as between one man and one woman and prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. In his letter, Gingrich reminds the group that DOMA was passed under his leadership.
At the same time he was assuring Iowa voters that he would never support gay marriage and promising Callista that he would not cheat on her, a billboard went up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania reminding voters that he had cheated with her. As we all know by now, the current Mrs. Gingrich is Newt’s third wife and their relationship started while he was still married to Mrs. Gingrich Number Two. The billboard is not the work of one of his opponents though I imagine they’d be pleased to see it. (In the last debate some did make sure to subtly bring up this topic—Rick Perry, for example, suggested that “If you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner.”) It’s not the work of some of the conservative groups who fear that his past dalliances make him unfit to be President. (Though an editorial in the conservative National Review points out that “Very few people with a personal history like his—two divorces, two marriages to former mistresses—have ever tried running for president.”) And, it’s not the work of any groups or politicians on the left who would likely be pleased to bring up one of the former Speaker’s many hypocrisies.
I suppose technically, the billboard is not political at all. It’s an advertisement. An advertisement for an online dating service called Ashleymadison.com which describes itself as the “the world’s premier extra-marital dating site” and boasts “12 million members” in “17 countries.” The billboard shows a determined looking Gingrich fist in the air with the copy “Faithful Republican, Unfaithful Spouse. Welcome to the Ashleymadison.com era.” In a press release, the site’s CEO suggests that the rising support for Gingrich proves that Americans now understand, “that marital fidelity has no bearing on someone’s ability to do a job. Rather than judge him, Americans have finally embraced the reality that affairs are commonplace, and perhaps paradoxically, might be an indication of great leadership to come. He is not the first nor last politician who will step outside of their marriage.”
In many ways I agree with Ms. Biderman. Though I’m not sure I would be proud to run a website that actively promotes and facilitates extramarital affairs, I do believe that having had an affair has no bearing on whether you can do your job. I’m not a big fan of lying or breaking promises but I think that marriages are private and complicated, that couples come to their own agreements—spoken and unspoken—about how they’re going to behave, and that no one outside that marriage has the right to judge.
Had he not been responsible for the passage of DOMA when he was Speaker and signed a marriage pledge this week, I might actually be using this column to defend Gingrich. If he hadn’t done those things, I might be using this column to say that cheating on wife one with wife two and wife two with wife three is not actually a reason, as some do, that he could not be President. (Suggesting poor children in public schools serve as janitors might be but I digress.)
But Newt’s right to do what he pleases with relationships stops in my mind when he starts dictating and legislating what other people can and can’t do in theirs. He faced no barriers in getting into a legal marriage with his first wife when he presumably thought he wanted to live with her for the rest of his life and no problem getting out of it when he decided he didn’t. He had no problem marrying a second woman, deciding against it, and marrying a third. Nobody told him that this marriage didn’t count as much as anyone else’s. Nobody denied him the right to file joint taxes or visit hospital rooms (even if it was, as legend has it, to deliver divorce papers). And yet having made his own decision about whom he should marry not once but three times, he seems to have no problem making this decision for—or more accurately denying it to—same-sex couples.
While I don’t think we can judge candidates on whether or not they are adulterers, I do think we can judge them on whether or not they are hypocrites. And when a thrice- married man pledges to deny marriage benefits to anyone, I see nothing but hypocrisy.