In case you missed it, here is the video of Newt Gingrich lashing out at CNN newsman John King during the most recent and final Republican debate before today’s South Carolina primary.
King was giving Gingrich the opportunity to react to an interview his second ex-wife, Marianne, gave to ABC news in which she claimed that the former Speaker of the House and moral crusader revealed his affair with a much younger aide and suggested the couple explore an open marriage.
Gingrich’s rage at the question, whether feigned or sincere, included a tirade against the “elite media,” and implicit in his answer was the assertion that his family life is off limits. The South Carolina crowd seemingly agreed, cheering loudly in support of Gingrich’s tantrum.
Earlier this month, The Daily Beast published an article about another presidential hopeful’s spouse, Karen Santorum, and her relationship with an obstetrician and abortion provider long before she met her husband Rick. The article contrasts the Santorums’ unusually hardened views on contraception and abortion with Karen’s former life as the live-in girlfriend of a man nearly 40 years her senior:
The six-year-long May-December affair, which was always out in the open, began in 1982, when Garver was a 22-year-old nursing student at Duquesne University. Allen was then 63. He was well known for delivering babies and helping to start a “therapeutic abortion” clinic at Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh years before Roe v. Wade. As at most such clinics, sympathetic psychiatrists of the era attested to women’s fragile mental health as a way to skirt restrictions on the procedure. Rick Santorum has lampooned the notion that abortion statutes should contain exceptions in cases where women’s health is at risk.
These two stories are but a sampling of the intense scrutiny presidential candidates—and their spouses and ex-spouses—receive from the media during long campaign cycles that offer little real news. But aside from fleshing out the names and faces involved in campaigns, do they serve much purpose in helping voters decide who will govern best? Like the subjects themselves, the answer is complicated.
It would be easy to dismiss the revelations of the Gingrich affairs and Karen Santorum’s love life as meddling pieces of gossipy journalism that have no place in presidential politics, as Gingrich essentially declared at the debate. But after more consideration, one piece seems legitimate and the other just a bit bizarre.
In Gingrich’s case, the focus is on his actions and a pattern of his behavior with how he handles complex, painful, and emotionally jarring issues in his personal life, not on his wives. Voters may have concerns that Gingrich may not be adept at governing based on his actions in his personal life, and some may even rightly view him as a hypocrite, both for his moral crusading and for leading the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton when Gingrich was having an affair of his own. While talking about marital failings in front of a national audience may be supremely uncomfortable for Gingrich, this pattern of behavior does seem relevant to the Gingrich’s ability to govern, as it demonstrates how he reacts to difficulties in his life.
The story of Karen Santorum is something else entirely. While many disagree with Rick and Karen Santorum’s views on issues of contraception and abortion, Karen is not running for president. In fact, she has been largely absent from the media spotlight during the last several months. I can’t comprehend how a story about Karen Santorum’s ex-boyfriend helps to inform voters about her husband’s ability to lead. Perhaps the author believes this reveals that Karen Santorum is a hypocrite, but even if that is true, she is not running for office and does not seem to have the same hold over her husband’s campaign that other spouses possess.
The private lives of presidential candidates should not be off limits, as there is often potential for great insight into a person’s character and clues to how he or she may lead if elected. But sometimes, exploring and writing about personal lives serves no purpose other than the telling of prurient or ultimately meaningless gossip. The key is determining if the information serves to inform voters about the candidate’s ability to lead. Only then is the story worthy of being labeled journalism, and worthy of voters’ time and consideration.