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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?

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There are, then, strong arguments on both sides of this debate, which is why many of us are on a continuum. Facts and circumstances are crucial. Was an act of infidelity an aberration or part of a pattern? What levels of deception and cover-up were involved? Was there abuse of power or were there unusual displays of cruelty and callousness involved? Does adultery manifest other character defects that are likely to spill over into one’s public actions?

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These are tricky matters to sort through. Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future, in the words of Oscar Wilde. And what role should grace and forgiveness play in all this?

Cheap grace

Too often, especially in politics, there is a habit to dispense what one theologian called “cheap grace.” Grace doesn’t mean ethical infractions are forgotten and never taken into account. At the same time, men are not angels. Sin afflicts us all. And most of us believe in, and all of us are in need of, redemption. How to balance grace and accountability is a matter that every one of us deals with in an imperfect and selective manner. Too often, we employ different standards based on our political affiliations and ideological predilections. We take similar facts and interpret them in very different ways, depending on how well they reflect on those whom we support versus those whom we oppose.

In “The Death of Outrage,” William J. Bennett wrote, “The founders (like the ancient Greeks) believed it was important that the head of the good polity be a man of good character, and they advocated that the office of the presidency be filled by persons whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.”

Mr. Bennett goes on to quote the beautiful words said of George Washington upon his death: “The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.”

We can do better

To find someone as virtuous as Washington is rare. But we should be able to do better than someone who, when asked by his then-wife (Marianne Gingrich) how he could give a speech full of high sentiments about compassion and family values while simultaneously committing infidelity, reportedly answered, “It doesn’t matter what I do.... It doesn’t matter what I live.”

Actually, it does.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Portions of this piece first appeared on Commentary magazine’s website Contentions.


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