Politics, Divorce and Infidelity: An Unhappy Marriage?

Whether you like his politics or not, there are two things about Newt Gingrich that almost all of us aren't too happy about: he's a cheater and he's twice-divorced.
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Whether you like his politics or not, there are two things about Newt Gingrich that almost all of us aren't too happy about -- he's a cheater and he's twice-divorced.

While numerous presidents have committed adultery, only one was divorced: Ronald Regan. If he wins the Republican nomination and makes it to the White House, Gingrich will be the only president who's done both. It's no notch on his bedpost.

We don't like politicians who have been unfaithful, and the last few years have brought a spate of them: Schwarzenegger, Sanford, Edwards, Spitzer, Craig, Giuliani, McGreevey and, depending on your definition of unfaithful, Weiner.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was already out of office when it was discovered that he had a son with a former family housekeeper, but many other politicians have resigned because of their indiscretions, including former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, after covering up a sexting scandal, and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, after it was discovered that he was with his Argentinean mistress during a mysterious six-day absence.

But many of those former politicians have reinvented themselves and been accepted, if not embraced, by the public that was at first so quick to shame them -- Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer among them. I'm not sure why we insist politicians resign in the heat of the moment when we're so willing to accept their foibles, and repentance, after the fact.

Is it any different for a divorced politician?

We're much more forgiving of a divorced politician than a cheating one. According to a Pew Research poll earlier this year, just 11 percent said they'd be less likely to support a candidate who's divorced while most, 85 percent, said it wouldn't matter -- although, interestingly, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to frown upon a candidate's divorce. When it comes to adulterers, 46 percent say they'd have a hard time supporting a candidate who's had an affair -- up from just 39 percent in February 2007.

Pew didn't ask how we feel about politicians who've been divorced twice, however, nor did it ask how we feel about why a politician divorced. Gingrich has been fighting the story of his divorce from his first wife (his former high school math teacher) for years -- he allegedly asked for a divorce while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. Oh, plus he was cheating on her at the time.

It seems especially callous to cheat on and divorce a partner who's sick or suffering, as Gingrich did twice -- he cheated on and divorced wife No. 2 after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis -- but it isn't all that uncommon. Women who are diagnosed with cancer or MS are six times more likely to find themselves separated or divorced shortly after their diagnosis than if they were a man, according to a 2009 study.

So, does divorce matter?

"Sometimes relationships work out, and sometimes they don't. Politics seems to be one of those sorts of professions that wears on marriages," says Yahoo writer Sevastian Winters. "We seek to judge the private lives of those who we choose from to lead, rather than the political agenda in play, and we fail to allow for humanity. Our leaders aren't gods. They are men and women with public jobs who are as susceptible, if not more so, to difficulties in their private lives and their marital records have no bearing on political agenda."

We just don't like it when then they're divorcing while in office. Former Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons was the state's first incumbent governor to lose his party's primary in 2008; many believe his nasty divorce and allegations of infidelity may have had something to do with it.

"History shows that we Americans generally like to elect politicians who have a stable family life, or at the least the appearance of one: a spouse, perhaps a couple of children, etc," writes Freakanomics journalist Stephen J. Dubner. "Among candidates running for national and statewide office, the spouse is a pretty standard prop at campaign stops."

But maybe it's time to acknowledge that the life of a politician, especially a president, doesn't work well with traditional marriage. As Matthew Yglesias, a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, writes:

The demands of being President of the United States are straightforwardly incompatible with being a model husband and father. The hours, the travel, and the stress just don't make it add up. But it can't be the case that all Presidents of the United States lack the requisite character to be President of the United States. It has to be the case that the kind of character that matters for a public official isn't the same as the kind of character that matters to be a good husband and father. After all, you want a responsible public official to neglect his family and friends ("hard-working"), to display a certain kind of ruthlessness and cunning ("negotiation"), to be a bit of a phony in certain situations ("diplomacy"), and all kinds of other things that don't carry over straightforwardly from personal life to public affairs.

As much as I won't vote for Gingrich, it's good to see him running: We need to see more candidates that look like us -- gay, Latino, female, African-American, Asian, the 99-percenters, the adult children of divorce and those who are divorced. For the latter, it may help strip away the stigma that divorce is a "failure" (although those who divorce because of their own infidelities may have their own cross to bear).

With the country in such dismal shape, we may be getting weary of all the focus on candidates' personal lives. "We want solutions to the larger problems," says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Until they get elected, that is, when we'll inevitably make a fuss over any hanky-panky.

Here, a look back at Newt Gingrich's relationships:

Newt Gingrich Marital History

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