Sunday, December 11, 2011

Presidential Fidelity: History's Mixed Verdict

The least passionate segment of last night’s debate was a brief round on personal family values.

Without glancing at Gingrich, his adversaries gave toneless answers, citing their own long marriages and “character” as an issue, with only Rick Perry, suave as always, expanding on the subject:

“Not only did I make a vow to my wife, but I made a vow to God. That’s pretty heavy lifting. That’s even stronger than a handshake in Texas...If you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner."

Gingrich, with a straight face, agreed that people should know "that this is a person that they can trust with the level of power we give to the presidency...I've made mistakes at times--I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather and I think people have to measure what I do now."

Subject closed? Looking back at White House occupants since FDR, however, history suggest a more nuanced answer to the correlation between presidential performance and marital fidelity.

Truman, Nixon, Ford, Carter and the two Bushes (as far as we know) were faithful, although Carter during his campaign gratuitously told Playboy he had “looked at a lot of women with lust in my heart.”

Before and after being stricken by polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt was not. His romance with Lucy Mercer effectively ended the intimacy of his marriage to Eleanor and, in later years, Missy LeHand was his social secretary and “constant companion.”

When Eisenhower was president, there were rumors of an affair with his World War II driver, Kay Summersby, who after Ike’s death and shortly before her own, wrote a memoir about their relationship.

JFK and LBJ violated their vows early and often.

Sainted Ronald Reagan moved into the White House as the first divorced president, while Nancy worked tirelessly to remove all biographical references to his first Hollywood wife, Jane Wyman, who never spoke publicly about their marriage.

Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” and impeachment thereafter (by Gingrich) require no elaboration.

Now, after the death of privacy, Americans might likely take in stride the first First Lady to acquire the position through adultery, although evangelicals are divided about the question of whether or not Gingrich has "repented enough."

To offset such criticism, Gingrich has now endorsed their "Marriage Pledge," promising to “support sending a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman to the states for ratification. I will also oppose any judicial, bureaucratic, or legislative effort to define marriage in any manner other than as between one man and one woman.”

Looking back, such presidents as Truman (who slept well after dropping the first atomic bombs in history), Nixon and Carter may be seen as small, mean-spirited men without moral imagination or the humanity to be ensnared by uncontrolled passion.

Whether or not that applies to Newton Leroy Gingrich, there will be a lot of other evidence to consider.

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