Victor Davis Hanson

The news media seem obsessed with the serial affairs of a younger Newt Gingrich back in the last century. The anger of his second of three wives mysteriously became national news on ABC's "Nightline" on the eve of the South Carolina primary. Millions watched Mrs. Gingrich II complain that Newt and the present Mrs. Gingrich III had done to her (while ill) just about the same thing that she and Newt had earlier done to Mrs. Gingrich I (while ill).

Do these marital dramas involving our leaders matter that much? At some point, does long-ago adultery earn a statute of limitations? Do we forgive a few, but not serial, transgressions? Do we really care to learn the back-and-forth, he said/she said details? And do leaders have to be exceptionally talented to atone for extremely poor marital behavior?

There have been plenty of unfaithful presidents, a few who could not even suppress their libidos upon entering the White House. Long before Bill Clinton's dalliances, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Warren Harding allegedly had been unfaithful to their first ladies.

Given the value of stable marriages to society, it would be nice to think that such moral failure in our presidential candidates would be a telltale warning of later flawed governance -- and that anyone who cheated on a spouse would also somehow cheat the country. But the truth unfortunately is more complex. The extracurricular Clinton proved a better president than the faithful Jimmy Carter. The reckless Kennedy served more honestly than did the seemingly devoted Richard Nixon. And the two-timing FDR was considered more successful than the monogamous Herbert Hoover.

Yet there are so many factors involved in both successful marriage and skilled leadership that it is impossible to isolate one trait -- even one as critical as fidelity -- as an absolute barometer of future success. Some of our most inspired civilian and military heroes -- Charles Lindbergh, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, Martin Luther King Jr. -- were rumored to have had relationships outside of marriage. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was courting his third wife while still married to his second wife when 9/11 occurred, and yet he proved steady and reliable in a way mayors more monogamous have not during lesser disasters.

Why, then, are the marriages and indiscretions of an ascendant Gingrich now such an issue, apparently bothering the media more than primary voters?


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.