Adultery May Be A GOP Family Value In 2008
Now that the New York Times has decided to spend 2,000 words on the state of Hillary’s marriage, and David Broder has decided that the issue, rather than her capabilities, is the “elephant in the room” for the national media, how long will it be before the same national media writes about the marital track record of three leading GOP candidates for the 2008 nomination?
Lurking just over the horizon are liabilities for three Republicans who have topped several national, independent polls for the GOP's favorite 2008 nominee: Sen. John McCain (affair, divorce), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (affair, divorce, affair, divorce), and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (divorce, affair, nasty divorce). Together, they form the most maritally challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history.
McCain was still married and living with his wife in 1979 while, according to The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, "aggressively courting a 25-year-old woman who was as beautiful as she was rich." McCain divorced his wife, who had raised their three children while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, then launched his political career with his new wife's family money. In 2000, McCain managed to deflect media questioning about his first marriage with a deft admission of responsibility for its failure. It's possible that the age of the offense and McCain's charmed relationship with the press will pull him through again, but Giuliani and Gingrich may face a more difficult challenge. Both conducted well-documented affairs in the last decade--while still in public office.
Giuliani informed his second wife, Donna Hanover, of his intention to seek a separation in a 2000 press conference. The announcement was precipitated by a tabloid frenzy after Giuliani marched with his then-mistress, Judith Nathan, in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade, an acknowledgement of infidelity so audacious that Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer compared it with "groping in the window at Macy's." In the acrid divorce proceedings that followed, Hanover accused Giuliani of serial adultery, alleging that Nathan was just the latest in a string of mistresses, following an affair the mayor had had with his former communications director.
But the most notorious of them all is undoubtedly Gingrich, who ran for Congress in 1978 on the slogan, "Let Our Family Represent Your Family." (He was reportedly cheating on his first wife at the time). In 1995, an alleged mistress from that period, Anne Manning, told Vanity Fair's Gail Sheehy: "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'" Gingrich obtained his first divorce in 1981, after forcing his wife, who had helped put him through graduate school, to haggle over the terms while in the hospital, as she recovered from uterine cancer surgery. In 1999, he was disgraced again, having been caught in an affair with a 33-year-old congressional aide while spearheading the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
Right now, at least 10 high-profile Republicans are eyeing the race. If a candidate with an adulterous past pulls ahead, the stragglers may be sorely tempted to play the infidelity card--if not openly, then through their surrogates. In 2000, George W. Bush's allies went well beyond raising McCain's affair--they spread bogus rumors in advance of the South Carolina primary that the senator had fathered an illegitimate black child. This strategy helped to deliver Bush a key primary victory and, arguably, the nomination.
But if GOP operatives dangle the infidelity bait, and the press fails to bite, its importance to Christian conservatives won't be so easy to ignore. Since the press awoke to the phenomenon of evangelicals in 2000 and so-called "values voters" in 2004, reporters have become fond of gaming out every possible permutation of evangelicals' political concerns. Evangelicals' attitudes towards the marital problems of McCain, Giuliani and Gingrich might actually deserve such an inquiry. In 2000, for example, James Dobson issued a personal press release specifically to "clarify his lack of support for Senator McCain." "The Senator is being touted by the media as a man of principle, yet he was involved with other women while married to his first wife," Dobson said. He also cautioned that McCain's character was "reminiscent" of Bill Clinton's--possibly the ultimate insult in conservative circles.
These remarks received little attention in 2000, possibly because reporters hadn't yet grasped the extent of Dobson's influence, but Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokesperson for Dobson's Focus on the Family, recently made it clear that the adultery issue hasn't lost any of its toxicity among evangelicals. "If you have a politician, an elected official, and they can't be trusted in their own marriage, how can I trust them with the budget? How can I trust them with national security?" she asked me. Although Earll was reluctant to discuss specific politicians, she noted that a candidate who "had an affair and then moved on and restored that marriage" might find forgiveness with Christian conservatives, but someone "who had an affair and then left his wife" would not.I lost all respect for Broder after he ran the “elephant in the room” piece against Hillary, even though I am not a fan of hers. But as Steve Benen of the “Carpetbagger Report” noted in his piece for the Washington Monthly, if the GOP or the mainstream media play the marital fidelity card against any Democrat in 2008, they had better be ready for an immense and unrelenting pushback from the center-left blogosphere.
But I disagree with Benen on one point: If Broder and the rest of the mainstream media continue to rehash Hillary's marriage or that of any Democrat in 2008, the center-left will make sure that the media hold McCain to the same scrutiny, even if it means that Broder and the rest of them will have to ditch the "Straight Talk" kneepads.