What America Could Learn From Newt Gingrich's Marriages

The former Speaker at least is honest about his Southern Gothic love life, unlike other pols who insist they have Stepford-perfect unions.


For me the most revelatory and useful information to emerge from the otherwise uninformative and useless Anthony Weiner calamity was that there are people who counted sex online as pretty much the same as sex in person. I hope I am not the only one who finds this, well, so fucking worrisome. It's not that text-message sex with someone else isn't hurtful and harmful to deal with in the context of a committed relationship. Of course it is -- as is a man's inability to remember that his dirty socks belong in the hamper, which is more persistently annoying over time. And yes, cybersex is more violative. Just the same, we ought not be confusing anything anyone is doing essentially alone with their own hands and fingers, however frenzied and harried, with what two people could be doing together in a heart-shaped red bathtub in a Honeymoon Lodge in the Poconos (which I hope is full of cheating spouses and absolutely no actual newlyweds).

Cybersex, which must be frustrating for so many reasons that I am not going to explore, is dangerous because it's a gateway drug to the real thing, it is the unsatisfying second- or sixth-best substitute that sets you screaming and seeking out in personam sex with an in-person human being. That's why it's really dangerous -- and why recovered junkies stay away from Chablis.

So if you are hoping I have suggestions for how to skip the awful first step and go straight to advanced beginners, that's not what this article is about. I was just trying to get your attention.

I actually am meaning to talk about marriage and its apparent resilience. Even when it was an active matter, I did my best to ignore Anthony Weiner's problems, because I found them them to be not that interesting and not my business. I find most politicians' marriages even more boring to contemplate, their no-work all-campaign wives, who are like no one anyone has ever met outside of Stepford, dreadfully dull right down to the single-process blonde hair and Vicodin-flat smiles. But the collective idea of public marriage -- of marriage in general -- interests me as it can only interest someone who has never tried it. It is particularly fascinating that in the aggregate, marriage endures through a lot of pain -- right this very moment, there is an awful lot of Internet "chatting" going on, and there is all the time, it's all so incredibly easy that fidelity and marriage can hardly compete; but they do. Marriage goes on, and mostly survives all kinds of internecine battles and extraneous distractions that range from profound to stupid, but by now are at the very least constant. Half of the time, matrimony is disagreeable to the point of dissolution, a lot of the time infidelity is somewhere in the mix of wrongs, but often enough people get through that particular problem. What surprises me in the vast temptation, and more importantly, the horrible boredom, of American life in 2012 is not that marriage has a high failure rate, but rather that it has about an equal chance of success.

Marriage is like Churchill's description of democracy: the worst relationship, except for all the others. Men hate monogamy, women are pretty wayward too, being alone is absolutely awful, no one can imagine spending the rest of their lives trying to decide how to spend Saturday night after about age 36, kids seem logical, no one will love us when we're old, we all need reunion dates, and of course, 50 years down the road, even discounting the ten or so years (hopefully not in tandem, but maybe) that were awful and that we spent making and canceling an appointment with a family lawyer almost every day at times, looking back, we had a life, and it meant something. Even though.... Even though there was a lot of even though. From the outside that looks like a happy marriage, and even happiness. I say this as an idealistic skeptic, but I think I am saying that even those of us who aren't married have a decent respect for what a complicated thing it is to make a lifetime commitment. Because, well, it's obvious.

So during political campaigns, I wonder how, if even I understand this -- how is it that politicians think Americans, most of whom are actually married or have been, are so dumb? Here we all are, average people, living in a world where we know very, extremely well that there are complicated negotiations that make couples and families work -- and this is just as true in Minneapolis as it is in Manhattan -- and yet somehow the only politician who outright has insistently acknowledged that the craziest things happen in the span of a life, even when your intentions are decent, is nutty Newt Gingrich. And when he did this, getting testy with John King at a CNN debate (which seems like an easy thing to do), it was to rousing cheers, partly for cursing out the press, but also I think for having the courage to be flat-out straight-up. Look, Gingrich has made bonkers behavior when it comes to love -- forget divorce, what was with the much older math teacher? -- worthy of a sequel to "The Royal Tannenbaums." He's kind of Southern Gothic, with a deep and abiding interest in zoology. So maybe it's hard for him to hide behind denials. But c'mon already regarding Mitt Romney, who always looks like it's 1978 and he's at opening day at an Oldsmobile Cutlass dealership in Lynn, Massachusetts. How perfect could those 40 perfect years have been?! It's not even because I believe that Mitt has been straying -- if only -- but these poor people have five -- five! -- sons: What are the chances that at least one of them didn't spend homeroom smoking reefer in the football field and didn't hang out Friday nights in 7-Eleven parking lots with the other juvie-bound delinquents? How good could it all have been?

I'm not saying I want each of the candidates -- Republican or Democrat -- to come forward and admit that, like everybody else, they had screaming fights the night before the in-laws were about to show up for a week-long visit. We don't need the gory details. But we also don't need to hear that they have been devoted to Jesus and without sin in whatever ways that count -- I think Jesus would have been way more angry about these guys' denying basic needs to the poor, and reluctant to cast the first stone at an adulterer -- just because they wanted to win in Iowa. For one thing, most of them didn't win in Iowa, and that's a lot of lying to do to lose one itty-bitty state. And anyway, the divorce rate is much higher in the red states than it is in the blue, and even though the denial rate is even higher, enough already. How much forgiveness and peace with the Lord do we need to hear about during a political campaign (and the poor Lord)? But above all, the sane majority would like a portrait of marriage in politics that comports with the one they experience every day -- often enduring many heartbreaking days -- and not just perfection. All over America, not for feminist reasons but for ends-meeting necessities, women work. Political wives apparently do not. "Wife and mother" is not a job, except possibly for a brief period of life for most women, and it doesn't matter if you read The Second Sex or the Katie Gibbs handbook, this is just how it is. So why does this unreal image continue?

I know for Bill and Hillary Clinton, presenting themselves as the true people they were turned out to be an American crucible, but I think we have changed. This country has aged in canine leaps since the financial crisis. It's not just that we know that marriage is fragile but survives -- or doesn't -- we also know that people are delicate, and have horrible experiences that you imagine could destroy careers and relationships and finally shatter a life. But they don't. I would much prefer to be reminded of that than to know about four decades spent in Replicant perfection.

Because, you know, I haven't followed it closely, but I feel like I'd have heard if anything had changed. And as far as I know, Anthony Weiner is still married and his life has gone on, offline. Instead of telling us the bad news that everything is just perfect, I would much prefer to hear the better news that people who love each other often find a way to work things out.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons