SAY what you like about the American elections, but they certainly make us think about what makes a person “fit to govern”. Even if you find the endless speechifying and complicated system of primaries tedious beyond belief, the campaigning brings into sharp focus a matter which should be interesting to us all; at what point should personal life and marital behaviour impact upon a person’s ability to do their job? Especially when that job comes with as much prestige and responsibility as that of Leader of the Free World.
Those who have strayed in post have never escaped the, ahem, stain, as Bill Clinton knows to his cost. It is worth noting that in the 223 years since Abraham Lincoln took office, there has only been one divorced occupant of the Oval Office. That was Ronald Reagan, and the general consensus is that he was given a relatively lenient ride because a) he had been in Hollywood, and b) his devotion to Nancy was clear.
Personally, I would be prepared to forgive a few personal foibles as they arise. I admit to feeling more than a little sorry for that promising Lib Dem David Laws, who was forced to resign as Chief Secretary to the Treasury almost as soon as the coalition Government kicked off because he hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with the truth about his domestic arrangements.
No doubt there but for the grace of God go plenty of others we just haven’t found out about yet. I can almost find some sympathy for Chris Huhne and the matter of those speeding points, because many of us been there and will admit it. But most of us, it must be said, wouldn’t have the audacity to attempt to blame someone else.
But can I find any sympathy for Newt Gingrich, the US Republican presidential candidate who, to our knowledge, has been married three times and has indulged in a variety of affairs?
One of his ex-wives now tells the world that he asked her if she would be happy with an open marriage – this was after he had already been unfaithful to her. I’ll spare you the rest of the grubby details, but he has summed up this string of infidelities going back 30 years or more with the words, “things happened”.
But his behaviour is no silly one-off or weak moment of temptation. It is serial. At the same time, he stands up in front of the American electorate and extolls the importance of family values and abiding by a strong moral code, not to mention proclaiming the strength of his converted Catholic faith. And, if that was not hypocritical enough, when Bill Clinton was being lambasted for his own indiscretion with Monica Lewinsky, guess who saddled up one of the highest of horses in order to condemn his behaviour? Yep. You got it. Did I say hypocritical already?
But this is the crux. Does all this make Gingrich a better politician because he is so clearly flawed, just like the rest of us? Or should he never have even made it this far, because if he can’t be trusted to keep his trousers zipped, then he sure can’t be trusted to use his political power responsibly? Well, let me put this to you. The point is, however much we complain about and criticise those who lead, or aspire to lead us, we still expect them to set an example.
In a recent poll for the British political website Total Politics, 71 per cent of ordinary members of the public said that they expect the personal moral standards of politicians to be higher than their own. And this is in Britain. Let’s not forget that in America, especially in Republican America, you have a strong and vociferous Christian moral majority.
It does make you question again the audacity of Gingrich even daring to stand up in front of them. At least the ill-fated Herman Cain, pizza magnate and one-time Tea Party poster boy had the humility to step down from the Presidential race as soon as the rumours of his extra-marital activities surfaced last year – although many say he was looking for an excuse to back out before he took a further drubbing in the polls.
In 1987, when Democratic Presidential candidate Gary Hart’s affair with model and actress Donna Rice was rumbled, George Reedy, press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, said: “What counts with a candidate for President is his character, and nothing shows it like his relationship with women. Here you have a man who is asking you to trust him with your bank account, your children, your life and your country for four years. If his own wife can’t trust him, what does that say?”
What it says is that ultimately, the electorate is highly unlikely to trust him either. In December 1987, Hart returned to the Presidential race, with the proclamation: “Let the people decide”. He competed in the New Hampshire primary and received 4,888 votes, approximately four per cent of the poll. It’s been 25 years. Times might have changed, but have voters? Newt Gingrich is about to find out.