In his post yesterday about Newt Gingrich’s history of extra-marital affairs and divorces, my colleague Carson Holloway said that the former House speaker was guilty of personal moral failings, irresponsibility, and ignoble conduct. Like most Americans, I agree with Carson’s characterization of Gingrich’s behavior. But Carson’s post begs the question of what Gingrich’s infidelity and divorce revealed about his character. Were not the circumstances morally troubling?
I think they were. Gingrich’s extra-marital affairs didn’t begin in a vacuum. Both began when his wives were diagnosed with major illnesses. In his first marriage, Newt implied to a congressional aide that he wanted out because his wife was sick. As Bloomberg reported last month,
Jackie Gingrich was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1978 and in the summer of 1980 was undergoing surgery on what turned out to be a benign tumor, according to her daughter’s online columns.
Adamson said she later asked him why he wanted the divorce. “Jackie can’t run uphill,” she recalled him saying, which she took to mean that his wife was overweight and ill, not a plus for an aspiring national politician.
Gingrich’s second marriage appears to have followed the same trajectory. According to his wife Marianne, Gingrich asked her for a divorce a few months after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Critics have piled on Gingrich for his infidelity and divorces, and he too has expressed contrition for his conduct. But nobody has pointed out that Gingrich is only the latest public figure who shucked his spouse due to his or her illness.
Former senator John Edwards is a case in point. He started his affair with Rielle Hunter more than a year after his wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer. And husbands aren’t alone in ditching their wives when the latter get sick. In a Washington Post Magazine article, Page Melton Ivie acknowledged that she began her affair with her second husband after her first husband had a heart attack and brain injury.
To religious conservatives, Gingrich, Edwards, and Melton Ivie are equally culpable of adultery and unjustified divorce. There is no moral distinction among them. But to some religious progressives and bobos, Melton Ivie’s case was different. Instead of abandoning her husband altogether, she and her new husband visit with him several times a week in a hospice care facility near their new home. That makes her conduct moral. While Gingrich and Edwards were low lifes and dogs, Melton Ivie was a moral paragon.
Her first husband’s family members agree. His father, stepmother, and brother attended Melton Ivie’s wedding. But what did the sick ex-spouse think? While Robert Melton was quoted approving of his wife’s divorce and remarriage, he was also quoted referring to her as his wife and he did not attend her wedding. In other words, he is so sick that determining his opinion is impossible.
That’s the reality of the personal-happiness standard of marriage: When one spouse becomes seriously ill, the other spouse ends the marital relationship and begins a new one. There is no do-or-die commitment. The healthy move on and the sick are moved on. It’s a Darwinian morality, and Gingrich was one of its many practitioners.