Newt Gingrich made headlines by calling Jon King "despicable" for bringing up his ex-wife's interview in Thursday's debate, but Gingrich took this principled stand precisely because he knew he needed to divert voters' attention — this type of news matters to voters, whether it should or not. Each new election cycle inevitably dredges up the question of whether a candidate's personal life is fair game for reporters and relevant to voters. There is much to be said on this question, but here is my take on the past few weeks: Gingrich doth protest too much.
As I see it, there are two ways in which the details of a candidate's personal life are relevant. The "values voters" subset of the Republican Party has decided that sufficient evidence of "family values" is a litmus test for conservative candidates. The size of their families, length of their marriages, and how they choose to raise their children are all seen as evidence that they respect traditional marriage and are good God-fearing Christians. It is too easy for candidates to say that they share these values — the record of their personal life stands as proof that they have lived them. So long as these voters continue to exercise influence in the GOP, their opinions will continue to matter.
Then there is the question of whether personal details are relevant to determine fitness for office. Have we had successful presidents with less-than-stellar marital records? Certainly. One could argue that this makes them a better president. But if their marital history is a product of pathological self-absorption, what else will they be willing to sacrifice to their sense of personal "grandiosity?" Does it matter that Mitt Romney strapped his dog to the roof of his car? Probably not. Or does it represent a blind spot when it comes to sacrificing the vulnerable to considerations of efficiency? Character is important, when it comes to a presidential candidate, but notoriously difficult to quantify.
Can we sometimes go too far? Of course. What we really want is the salacious gossip that lets us feel superior to the candidates. There are personal details that are not relevant, that go beyond what is necessary to determine a candidate's ability to do the job. But it is up to the voters to determine what is and is not relevant. Thanks, Newt, but I prefer to decide for myself.
As to the question of whether it was appropriate for ABC to air the interview right before the primary, Gingrich has no grounds to criticize them. If only from the standpoint of providing a public service to the voters, they should be required to release the information, especially when it could do damage to a candidate. If the interview wasn't going to affect the outcome in South Carolina, it shouldn't have made a difference to Gingrich. But he knew that it might, and that's precisely why he objected.
Gingrich has clearly had the presidency in his sights for a long time — perhaps he should have considered this public vetting process when he was making those questionable life decisions in the first place.
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