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.
Actually, he had no choice.
Marianne Gingrich’s decision to talk about how Newt dumped her, and why the partisan philanderer did so, forced the issue.
There was no way to avoid what King admitted was a “damned if do you, damned if you don’t” circumstance.
“I understood that if I asked the question he was not going to be happy with it, and he was going to turn on me,” King said with regard to criticism he took for asking the toughest question for Gingrich right at the start of the debate. “It was my judgment, my decision, and mine alone,” said King. “If we’re going to deal with it, let’s deal with it up front.”
So King asked the question. And then the show began:
JOHN KING: And just as speaker Gingrich surged into contention here in South Carolina, a direct fresh character attack on the Speaker.
And Mr Speaker, I want to start with that this evening.
As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post. And this story has now gone viral on the internet.
In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage.
Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
GINGRICH: No, but I will.
GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.
KING: Is that all you want to say, sir?
GINGRICH: Let me finish.
GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.
My—my two daughters—my two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it, and I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.
KING: As you noted, Mr Speaker, this story did not come from our network. As you also know, it is a subject of conversation on the campaign. I’m not—I get your point. I take your point.
GINGRICH: John, John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don’t try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it.
Let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren’t interested because they would like to attack any Republican. They’re attacking the governor. They’re attacking me. I’m sure they’ll presently get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul.
I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.
Gingrich drew cheers from the partisan crowd at the GOP debate in North Charleston, as he knew he would. It’s not as if the audiences at GOP debates have distinguished themselves as sound judges of character, so the former speaker knew he would fool most of the people this time.
So did King play this show right? For the most part, yes.
Aside from a bumbling attempt to employ the old journalistic dodge of suggesting he was just asking a question about another media outlet’s story—for which he took an appropriate hit from Gingrich—the CNN host handled things well.
He acted as a journalist, not a softball pitcher.
King asked an unpleasant question. He got booed. He had to listen to the silliest of anti-media rants from the silliest of all American politicians.
But, even if the crowd was on Gingrich’s side, King’s questioning revealed the extent of Gingrich’s delusion.
The man who raised tough questions about Bill Clinton’s shaky claim to moral authority blamed a media personality for asking tough questions about his shaky claim to moral authority. Then Gingrich announced that he was “tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
Reasonable people can debate whether Obama has been “protected” by the media.
On Thursday night, however, that wasnt what Newt Gingrich was really complaining about.
What he was really complaining about was John King’s refusal to protect Newt Gingrich.
There are, to be sure, more important issues on which to press these candidates: questions about corporate personhood, poverty programs and racial stereotyping. But an important part of moderating a debate, any debate, is to ask the candidates questions they do not want to answer. And, though he had to know that Newt Gingrich would go nuclear, King went ahead and asked the question.
Good. Debates are not supposed to provide candidates with forums for reciting talking points. They are supposed to make candidates squirm and, for all his bombast and bravado, Newt was squirming Thursday night. He was also campaigning—and counting on an antiliberal media message to carry him across the line in a Strom Thurmond state where right-wing populist, antiliberal media appeals have won plenty of times.