Newt Gingrich and the adultery question
Newt Gingrich's candidacy revives an old question: How relevant is adultery when it comes to choosing a president?
Since the founding of the republic, most Americans have believed there is an important connection between personal character and political leadership. Many qualities define character. But thanks to male politicians on both sides of the aisle – including Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign and John Edwards – the issue of character often gets reduced to marital fidelity. Which raises the question: How relevant is adultery when it comes to choosing a president?Skip to next paragraph
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Betrayal – or no big deal?
On one end of the spectrum are those who believe the issue is open-and-shut. The argument goes like this: a person who betrays his spouse may well betray other commitments, including defending the Constitution. Unfaithfulness unquestionably bears on character, and character in public officials matters. “Betrayal is a garment without seams,” in the words of Professor Robert King. Serial infidelity can be a sign of other maladies, including narcissism and compulsiveness, recklessness and deception. And presidents, like athletes, are role models. The NFL has a personal conduct policy; shouldn’t we expect something similar for our chief executive?
For others, infidelity by a politician is a matter of indifference. Presidents take an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to live by the moral commands of the Bible. And it’s often the case that infidelity has no bearing on a person’s public duties.
On top of that, there are plenty of sins that are condemned in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Why focus on infidelity instead of self-righteousness, bitterness, avarice, or lack of charity? And of course a person who cheats on his spouse might also embody virtues in other arenas (for example, battlefield valor). Some of the most important figures in American history – from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt to Martin Luther King, Jr. – are believed to have cheated on their wives. Should their voices have been silenced because of their indiscretions?
The Churchill-Chamberlain test
Assume that during World War II the choice was between an unfaithful Winston Churchill and a faithful Neville Chamberlain. With the benefit of hindsight, who would most of us prefer as prime minister? (For the record, Churchill was known to be devoted to his beloved Clementine.)