THE RADIO talk show had turned to the presidential possibilities of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. On the line was a woman who described herself as a religious conservative and a Republican. "I could never vote for Gingrich," she was saying. "If he couldn't uphold his marital vows, how can we trust him to uphold his oath of office?"
Get ready: We may be hearing a lot of that in the months ahead.
Fifteen years ago it was a Democrat, Governor Bill Clinton, whose marital shortcomings faced scrutiny on the presidential campaign trail. Six years later, then-President Clinton was impeached by House Republicans for lying under oath about what he eventually admitted was his "inappropriate" relationship with a White House intern.
Another presidential race is underway, and again marital misbehavior is drawing attention. This time it is Republicans whose family values are in question. Of leading GOP contenders -- Gingrich, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, and former governor Mitt Romney -- only Romney is married to his first wife. McCain is on his second marriage; Gingrich and Giuliani, their third. Each had an affair with the woman now his wife while married to another .
McCain's first marriage ended more than 25 years ago, but Giuliani's and Gingrich's family complications continue to make news. Last month, Giuliani and wife number three posed for a newspaper photo while exchanging an intimate kiss. Not long thereafter Giuliani's son Andrew announced that he would not take part in his father's campaign, making it clear that the family remains riven by the former mayor's bitter and very public dumping of wife number two -- Andrew's mother, Donna Hanover.
Earlier this month, Gingrich went on the air with James Dobson, a Christian conservative, and confessed he had cheated on his former wife. Asked "if the rumors were true" that he was involved in an adulterous relationship even as the Clinton impeachment was underway, Gingrich replied: "Well, the fact is that the honest answer is yes." Dobson pressed on , asking whether Gingrich was repentant. "Absolutely," Gingrich replied. "I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed . . . and sought God's forgiveness."
Just how much of this do Americans want? Are a candidate's marriages, divorces, or extramarital affairs relevant to his fitness for political office? Confession may be good for the soul, but is it good for presidential politics?
Of course, voters are free to measure politicians by any yardstick they choose. But when the conversation turns to sexual misbehavior, a few principles are worth keeping in mind.
First, marital fidelity has nothing to do with political leadership. Convenient as it would be if adulterous behavior were a reliable indicator of presidential unsuitability, history doesn't bear that out. Franklin Roosevelt had mistresses and John F. Kennedy was a philanderer, but both made better political leaders than such faithful husbands as Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon. From King David to Martin Luther King, examples abound of illustrious public leaders who were grievous private sinners. The untidy fact is, a man who would be scandalous as a pastor may prove an exemplary president.
Second, public behavior counts for more than private behavior. Voters should give greater weight to what a politician says and does in public than to his private words and deeds. What matters most is whether he upholds appropriate values -- not whether he falls short of those values in private. Civilized society does not require human perfection and consistency. It does require that imperfect human beings, whatever their private failings, affirm the distinction between right and wrong, and maintain a social architecture of shared moral standards.
A man who publicly castigates an adulterous president while secretly carrying on an affair of his own -- as Gingrich did in 1998 -- may be a hypocrite, but he has not undermined the public code that condemns adultery and celebrates marital faithfulness. By contrast, a man who flaunts his infidelity and goes out of his way to publicly humiliate his wife -- as Giuliani did in 2000 -- has behaved far more destructively. He has not just violated society's moral guidelines: He has subverted them.
There are saints and sinners in every political camp, and no party has a monopoly on "family values." When the spotlight was on Clinton's indiscretions, that was something too many Republicans tended to forget.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)