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Awkward: Student Questions Gingrich on Extramarital Affairs

A terse exchange between the former House Speaker and a student at Penn:

Newt Gingrich was forced to wade into the thorny matter of his personal life Tuesday night during a forum at the University of Pennsylvania.  In a question-and-answer session, Isabel Friedman, a student at the university who's also Democratic activist, pressed Gingrich on how he squares his pro-family values with the fact he has been married three times and has admitted to two extramarital affairs.

"You adamantly oppose gay rights... but you've also been married three times and admitted to having an affair with your current wife while you were still married to your second," Friedman said, in comments first reported by Politico. "As a successful politician who's considering running for president, who would set the bar for moral conduct and be the voice of the American people, how do you reconcile this hypocritical interpretation of the religious values that you so vigorously defend?"

Gingrich appeared none-too-happy with the question.

"I'll bet almost everybody here can gather the thrust of your question," he said. "I appreciate the delicacy and generosity in the way it was framed...I hope you feel better about yourself."

The possible Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker added he doesn't think most voters will care about his past personal mistakes:

"I've had a life which, on occasion, has had problems," said Gingrich. "I believe in a forgiving God, and the American people will have to decide whether that's their primary concern.  If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant," he continued. "If the primary concern of the American people is the future . . . that's a debate I'll be happy to have."

Partial video of the interaction has emerged on YouTube:

Some conservatives may be inclined to impugn the questioner as a snotty Ivy League undergrad.  Others will dwell on the fact that she's a known liberal activist and a member of the school's College Democrats chapter -- perhaps suggesting that she's a bad-faith, agenda-driven inquisitor.  Regardless of one's feelings about the messenger, though, I happen to think the question itself was completely legitimate -- and may actually help Gingrich if he decides to run for president.

As the CNN story linked above notes, the premise of Ms. Friedman's question was factually sound:

Gingrich has admitted to cheating on his second wife in the late 1990's with the woman who is now his wife. He's also acknowledged having an affair with the woman who became his second wife while he was married to his first wife.

Gingrich's critics will also point to an unseemly episode in the early 1980s, when he visited his cancer-stricken wife in the hospital to discuss a divorce. 

Any prominent presidential candidate ought to be prepared to handle questions about his or her own moral failings.  If Gingrich supporters don't think his past marital issues will be the subject of significant debate -- or at least an aggressive whisper campaign -- in a GOP primary, they're kidding themselves.  If anything, Friedman offered Gingrich a preview of an issue with which he'll be forced to contend if he's serious about capturing the nomination.

The substance of his response was pretty strong -- professing reliance on a "forgiving God" and a focus on the future were both deft moves, and the audience responded approvingly to each element of his rejoinder.  I do wonder if Gingrich might have been slightly better served to have adopted a less snippy tone.  It goes without saying that nobody enjoys having their flaws aired in public; such is human nature.  But if Gingrich is truly sorry about his past missteps, displaying a measure of contrition and humility could go a long way to winning over skeptics and putting this problematic issue behind him. 

As Gingrich alluded to in his answer, the American people are remarkably forgiving.  If he effectively finesses one or two of these questions, Gingrich could very well harness that inclination toward forgiveness and transcend some of his past mistakes. 

After all, the 2012 election won't be about anyone's personal life.  It will be about "winning the future," to quote the current president.

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