Fifteen years ago, then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich was arguing that President Clinton’s personal foibles were fair game for political debate, and ultimately justification for impeachment.
Now, as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination as a “moral values” candidate, Gingrich is suddenly facing charges, raised by an ex-wife, about his own personal foibles. Those questions arose on the eve of the final debate before the critical South Carolina primary, in which Gingrich has surged to a top-tier position. The former Speaker needed one more opportunity to distinguish himself as the meanest dog in the GOP junkyard—a socialist-ripping pit bull as compared with the French poodle that is Mitt Romney.
And he got it in Thursday night’s last pre-primary debate.
The moderator, CNN’s John King, faced a basic journalistic challenge: Ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind, and face Gingrich’s fury, or avoid it and give Gingrich the sort of break that reporters used to provide “player” politicians. Of course, there are more important issues than Newt Gingrich’s adultery. And there would have been little justification for asking “the question” if Gingrich’s ex-wife had not just given an interview to ABC News in which she painted the “moral values” candidate as a heartless sleazeball who dumped a first wife with cancer and a second wife with multiple sclerosis.
Don’t get me wrong: I would much rather wrangle over the issue of corporate personhood with Mitt Romney, or sort through the vagaries of the Austrian School of economics with Ron Paul, than learn anything more than I already know about Newt Gingrich’s personal life.
And don’t think that I am suggesting that King was foolish enough to think that his questioning would hurt Gingrich in South Carolina. There was never much doubt that the absolutely certain response to an indelicate inquiry was likely to harm Gingrich with a substantial segment of the South Carolina Republican electorate.
It’s no secret that running against the media can work, especially in an era when so-called “legacy media”—traditional networks and newspapers—have become so dysfunctional that they make for the easiest of targets. And no GOP contender has made the bashing of “liberal media” so central a campaign theme as has Gingrich.
So King knew that if he asked “the question,” he would get the blowback—not because Gingrich was genuinely upset, but this is part of Gingrich’s act.
Gingrich is engaged in an act of political theater. He is playing the role of the right-wing populist contender. And, aside from bashing an African-American president or complaining about janitors, no part of the performance is more essential than the rant about “liberal media.”
So John King had to choose whether he wanted to be a bit player in the performance.