Do Long Marriages Mean Better Presidents?

Two weeks ago, back on November 3, I noted that a long-standing and scandalous “legend” about Newt Gingrich was being refuted by his daughter:

We’ve all heard the story about how Newt Gingrich — heartless, horrible man — went to his cancer-stricken wife’s hospital bed and told her he wanted a divorce.

We heard it so often, we believed it. I admit, I believed it. Did you?

Of course, I was far from the first to notice; Doug Mataconis explored the story back in May of 2011, after Andrew Sullivan also noted Jackie Gingrich Cushman’s story:

It’s become both the butt of jokes and the reason for criticism that Newt Gingrich informed his first wife that he wanted a divorce while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. Now, we have a first hand account from one of Gingrich’s daughters that this is untrue.

Still, as recently as three days ago — November 15 — the press was content to preserve the narrative:

Mr. Yepsen says voters aren’t likely to dwell on Gingrich’s past – though he is twice divorced, and left his first wife following her treatment for cancer. He left his second wife for a staff member who is now his third wife, Callista.

Gingrich’s daughter, recall, wrote:

Mom went to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for surgery to remove a tumor. While she was there, Dad took my sister and me to see her . . .here’s what happened:

My mother and father were already in the process of getting a divorce, which she requested. Dad took my sister and me to the hospital to see our mother. She had undergone surgery the day before to remove a tumor [which was benign].

Today Hot Air notes that the mainstream media (or, at least The Washington Post), are finally acknowledging that the legend was, in fact, highly distorted:

Yet while the thrust of the story about his first divorce is not in dispute — Gingrich’s first wife, Jackie Battley, has said previously that the couple discussed their divorce while she was in the hospital in 1980 — other aspects of it appear to have been distorted through constant retelling.

Most significantly, Battley wasn’t dying at the time of the hospital visit; she is alive today. Nor was the divorce discussion in the hospital “a surprise” to Battley, as many accounts have contended. Battley, not Gingrich, had requested a divorce months earlier. . .Gingrich’s marriage to Battley had been troubled for many years before it dissolved 31 years ago, both parties have said.

The WaPo deserves some props for running this clarifying piece — albeit several months after Cushman’s public statement, and on a Saturday, the least-read day of the week. But while the salacious “legend” is now being somewhat beaten back, it’s worth asking the larger question: given the five-decade devolution of our cultural understanding of marriage should a long marriage or divorces really matter in our considerations of candidates?

Marriages end for many reasons, some of them completely unscandalous; it is the rare family that has not been touched by divorce, and it has always seemed to me to be no one’s business what has brought people to that point. Am I right in thinking that Ronald Reagan was our first “divorced president?” I don’t see how his divorce had anything to do with his character or his presidency.

For that matter, I can’t imagine any Republican suggesting that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s long marriage in any way validated their characters; I cannot imagine any Democrat pointing to the long marriage of George and Laura Bush as an indicator of leadership ability. Barack and Michelle Obama’s successful marriage speaks to nothing as regards competency.

Deciding on a presidential candidate on the basis of his or her marital status is more about validating one’s own values than making a careful assessment of a character’s strengths and weaknesses. None of us truly know why anyone else’s marriage ends, or for that matter, whether our own marriages may face future challenges, and how we’ll respond to them. For Christians, especially, the temptation to judge someone on the basis of their successful or unsuccessful marriages may be strong, but I wonder if it should be?

After all, we know how often we’ve needed to ask for the kiss of God’s mercy against our own wounding sins, and how grateful we have been to read Isaiah 38:17: you have saved me from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back, all of my sins.”

I don’t have any idea what Newt Gingrich’s marriages say about his character: perhaps something negative. I do not know what his reluctance to correct the record on a very damning story says about his character, either: perhaps something positive.

All I know is we’ve had plenty of long-married presidents whose performances in office have been less-than-stellar. My country is in way too much trouble for me to decide to give or withhold my vote based on that.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • vox borealis

    and it has always seemed to me to be no one’s business what has brought people to that point.

    I can’t agree with you here, Anchoress. When a couple marries, they seek public validation of their relationship. Marriage is a public institution. Hence, the break-up of a marriage and the reasons behind it are inherently a matter of public concern. Moreover, the position that why a marriage breaks up doesn’t matter goes hand in glove with the phenomenon of no fault divorce, which has absolutely devastated the institution.

    Now, all this being said, I do agree–mostly—with the larger point of this piece, that the longevity or stability of a candidate’s marriage(s) is not *necessarily* a clear indication of his or her leadership, ability to govern, etc.

    [We'll have to agree to disagree; our baptisms are public, too, but that doesn't mean our sins must all be aired, or our penances -admin]

  • Will

    I used to think that the parlimentary form of government had the advantage over our system by not making one person, the president, so important. Instead of voting for one person, you vote for the party and its philosophy. The many scandals in other countries with parliments has changed my thinking on that.

    Perhaps it is foolish to think our leaders should have high standards in their family life. Perhaps it makes no difference in their public life. My thought is that it is something that should be evaluated along with other things by voters.

  • David_J_White

    I wouldn’t want to place too much emphasis on this or any other single aspect of a candidate’s life. On the other hand, a candidate’s marriage is certainly one aspect of a candidate’s life that can and should be evaluated in trying to ascertain a candidate’s character and fitness for office.

    What I don’t have any patience for is when candidates try to use their families as political props for reinforce the impression they are trying to make about their character and values, and then turn around and declare that their families should be off limits when reporters and others start asking questions and investigating their family life more closely. If you want your family life to be private, then don’t trot your family out in front of the cameras and use them as a prop.

  • Manny

    The problem with Newt is that he is a loose cannon. He is undisciplined. I don’t know the details of his personal life, but the disordered personal life does not surprise me. He was a great underminer of the Liberals in the House before the Republican take over in 1994. But once he took office he couldn’t manage. He had that great first year with the Contract with America. But he had the Contract as his roadmap then, and even that he almost botched in negotiations with Clinton. People forget Newt was pushed out by his own Republican House members. After the first year he floundered and had House Republicans in total rebellion. It was not because of ideological differences. It was him personally.

    Perhaps Newt has changed with age and time. But you know his baggage is still out there. If the Republicans in the primary don’t use it, Obama will. And is it really a different Newt? Well his campaign team rebelled and quit just a couple of months ago. And a month before that he out of no where attacked the Paul Ryan plan and not just attacked but used language that was completely out of bounds and undercut the House republicans. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

  • Todd

    The record shows, admitted by the candidate, that he committed adultery on his first two wives with wives numbers two and three. He was also disciplined for ethic violations as Speaker.

    Too many moral questions for a nation in need of superior leadership.

  • Greta

    First off, the Catholic Church has given him an annulment on his marriages so if one looks at this from a Catholic perspective, doesn’t this mean that the marriages in fact do not now exist? To get the annulment, the marriages going in were flawed to the point where the Church could officially state that they are no longer there to prevent his current marriage. So at this point, the most serious flaw I can see is that he had sex outside of marriage and not sure many are going to see this as a serious impediment in today’s world.

    Newt is not the same person he was prior to everything that has happened in his life. His life experiences have led a path to his conversion to the Catholic Church which he takes very seriously. He has also had a chance over the last 12 years to see many different aspects of the business world and he already knew how government works as he was part of the balancing of the budget which many gave Clinton all the credit for, a grave error. Remember, Clinton with his wife would have given us a massive healthcare program that would have bankrupted us which was why the Democrats lost the house after holding it all the way back to Eisenhower. Few seem to remember that at no time did Reagan have control of the House during his full eight years and neither did Bush I. Everything that was accomplished by Reagan had to be done in some working relationship with the house, often with huge democratic majorities. That is what it makes it such a joke that Obama can’t get anything done with the house in Republican hands. It is his job to make things happen and to do what he has to do to get Republican votes. Some like to crow that Reagan raised some taxes which he did as they were forced on his as part of other things Reagan wanted done to move the country forward. Obama his way or the highway approach is what has led to gridlock. Bush II got solid votes on funding the wars and on everything else he got done in his 8 years including the Patriot Act and Gitmo funding. Bush II also had huge majority votes supporting his going into Afghanistan and Iraq including huge majority democratic support.

    Newt if elected will get this country moving in a positive direction and will have major reform on a very antiquated system of government.

  • friscoeddie

    Greta is on board..the Newt raft..anyone else?

  • SKay

    “Greta is on board..the Newt raft..anyone else?”

    It looks a lot better than the Obama Titanic.

  • Michelene

    I’ll say from the start that I am a divorced person. I am not in the position to judge Gingrich’s heart; no one is. I can only judge his actions, and I will not vote for him because of his personal life. No one is forced to run for president. A truly wise man would say, “I’ve made some serious mistakes, and because of God’s mercy, I’ve been given a second chance. The Catholic Church has forgiven my sins and blessed the union with my current wife that began in adultery. I ask forgiveness from my previous wives and my family. Because of my actions and lack of judgment, I am removing myself from public life.” That’s what I’d like to see just ONE person say, instead of playing the family values card and trotting out the trophy wife. Reasons for divorce can be many, and divorce alone is not a deal-breaker for me in a candidate, but I will not vote for a serial adulterer, assuming there are other valid candidates available. Adultery is a form of lying and lack of discretion, and I don’t want to support that. Maybe if people didn’t support these men, politicians might think twice before bedding their interns/secretaries/assistants, especially in this day of “nothing is private” news.

  • Teresa

    Too many moral questions regarding Newt? Well then let’s just keep Obama. If one keeps searching for a candidate who is flawless, one shall be waiting for a very long time.

  • Judith L

    Thank you for these comments, Anchoress. Totally aside from Newt Gingrich, I think they are very constructive. Long, long ago, whenever a friend told me that they were divorcing, I urged them to reconsider. Somewhere along the way I stopped doing that. I believe strongly that no one really knows the inside of a marriage but the partners–and their understandings of the marriage are often at odds. I believe that most enduring marriages go through times when the chances for divorce are very high. For many years our social climate has been increasingly hostile to enduring marriage. I am responsible before God for my own marriage. I can be supportive of friends whose marriages are in trouble, but, ultimately only they know what they can endure.
    My husband and I have been married for over 44 years. When people ask me the secret to a long marriage, I say, “Don’t call the lawyer.”

  • Terrye

    The media loves to sensationalize this sort of thing..but there is a reason why Reagan did not take as much grief for his divorce as Gingrich did..overall Gingrich’s character is more questionable. The ethics violations…the fact that he had to leave his speakership in disgrace and the questions about money that have always dogged him.

  • Terrye


    I don’t want to keep Obama, but I am not going to pretend that I am comfortable with Newt. It is not as if they are the only two possibilities.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I’ve said it before. If you’ve had 3 wives, there is (was?) something wrong with you. You are a bad judge of character or an impossible person. Is he able to keep that part of his character separated from the rest? You seem not to be sure. I’m not banking on it. And I still don’t understand how you show remorse for the sin of adultery by divorcing your wife and marrying your mistress. If I rob a bank and say I’m sorry, can I keep the money? What does keeping the money say about how sorry I really am? Does this say “more about validating one’s own values than making a careful assessment of a character’s strengths and weaknesses?” It says both, but mostly, that I’m tired of politics, politicians, and compromising.
    His marital problems may amount to nothing, however, if Freddie has anything to say about it.

  • David_J_White

    but there is a reason why Reagan did not take as much grief for his divorce as Gingrich did

    I think the fact that Reagan’s divorce happened long before he got into politics had something to do with it. By the time he was elected president, he and Nancy had been married for over 20 years, and she had been with him throughout his political career. Also, when Reagan got divorced, he was an actor, not a politician loudly talking about family values while at the same time committing adultery.

  • Elaine S.

    Reagan was also helped by the fact that Jane Wyman, his first wife, stayed out of the spotlight and didn’t dish any dirt on him that I can recall while he was president, or while he was campaigning. I believe I read somewhere that the reason she divorced him was because he was already (late 1940s) getting too interested in politics for her taste and she didn’t want to be a political wife. In any event, she was probably thankful that she DIDN’T get to be First Lady.

  • Todd

    “(F)rom a Catholic perspective, doesn’t this mean that the marriages in fact do not now exist?”

    No. A declaration of nullity addresses the sacramental nature of the marriage, not it’s existence as a legal, personal, or even an canonical reality.

    Manny nails it, I think. Newt is great agitating from the outside looking in. He makes a nice 5th place candidate in the GOP field. Maybe a decent minority leader in the House. If you Republicans think he’s the best option in your field, I say knock yourselves out. Literally.

  • SJ Reidhead

    My opinion about divorce changed when it hit close to home. It also began to change while I was doing genealogy on my father’s family. He comes from those old New England families that literally go back to Plymouth Rock, etc. etc. You name the patriot and he is related to them. Pick a president and he is related. It is fun and amusing to see who pops up on the family tree. It also became a bit puzzling when I would come up with three, four, and five marriages for some of his ancestors, connecting and re-connecting from who knows what angle. Then I discovered that my Puritan ancestors were not married within a church or religious setting. Their marriages were civil, and divorce during those days of patriotism, founding fathers, and early settlers was terribly easy. Sign a paper and it was done. There was no stigma in divorce. So, those many marriages I would find for just about everyone were because of numerous divorces. Thusly, it has rendered anyone from those old families related to everyone from the old families. I find it all rather fascinating because two hundred years later their descendants were completely against divorce. All this really says is that our opinion of the situation changes over the years. In the long run, does it even matter? Having lived with the rather humorous legacy of a fairly close relative, I’ve learned that multiple marriages and love affairs have nothing to do with the true character of the man, only his messy private life. He is still a good, honorable, and decent man, just a little colorful with his personal life.

    The Pink Flamingo

  • Jan Baker

    The combox rules rejected this comment as too short. Okay, then. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. Yes. Yes yes. And yes. Are you serious? And he rather shows the same infidelity regarding his previous and doubtless future polity statements, too.

  • Jan Baker

    And one more thing regarding Gingrich’s politics. They aren’t our politics. Our politics are those overturned by the Gingrich’s of the day, in the Reformation. Our politics were *for* regulation. Catholic regulations kept the economy local, ownership widely distributed (that’s why they call it distributism), forbad lending at interest, forbad advertising, forbad getting richer than you needed to be. The whole reformation was all about overturning that–and they did. They got ‘free markets’ and it’s caused havoc ever since. No, no, what we need is a full blown restoration, with Christ and Catholicism at the center. I know that seems unlikely in the extreme, but do you understand why the Republican party’s slate of potential candidates is so much like a parody of SNL? Because they’re out of ideas! And the Dems, too. They are both *liberal* parties, the Republicans are more liberal than the Democrats, and Ron Paul is the most liberal of all. Their politics are played, played, played. They give us about as much choice as between a kick in the head and a kick in the stomach. Viva Cristo Rey, bring back the religious orders if you want sustainable health care. Catholic party now.

  • Margaret

    Also, maybe it makes a difference that Reagan did not seek the divorce, Jane Wyman did. He did not want the divorce and was distraught over it. He was the third of Wyman’s four husbands and she admitted SHE divorced HIM.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Because, really, after Obama’s excellent administration, how could we possibly want anyone else to be president?

    /Okay, okay, sarc. off—ducks and runs for cover.)

  • Teresa

    No Obama and Gingrich are not the only two possibilities; however, I believe Gingrich is currently the only one intelligent enough to defeat Obama and his teleprompter. In my mind the only thing important enough for the country now is to defeat Obama, otherwise we are done. I will take Newt with all his human shortcomings over Obama any day.

  • Klaire

    Personally I find it head spinning that any Catholic could dismiss Newt for “what he was” rather than what he has become by the grace and mercy of God, the sacraments, and Catholicsim. If we used that same critera on everyone, including many saints, (St. Paul comes to mind), we would be a pretty cold hearted un Christian group.

    Like Greata, I see a man who appears to have learned a lot of lessions. And like Churchhill, and I’ve been saying/writing this for the past 2 years or so, I think for the times, Newt may well be the man. For starters, he totally “gets” the perils of taking God out of America. Even more so, he is highly inspired by JPII.

    I met Newt one day at the Bascilia Cafeteria in DC; had a great conversation with him. He told me of his awesome experience meeting Pope Benedict and how just being in the presence of his “joy” Newt knew it could only be the presence of God, subsequently, he became a Catholic. I found him to be an extremely kind man, even to me a total stranger, who just happend to be sitting next to him having coffee.

    That meeting confirmed what I has suspected from a distance; Newt is a good man, and he loves America. Say what you must, but hands down, Newt is far better for America than Obama, and he may well be the only one who can win against him.

  • Judith L

    Totally apart from Newt, I think it’s important to reserve judgment about peoples’ marriages. I have a wonderful friend who is on her third marriage. It is happy and stable. She is one of the most sensible, reliable people of my acquaintance. Whatever my assessment of Newt as a potential POTUS is, it won’t be dependent on his marital history.

  • Thomas

    1 Timothy chapter 3 comes to mind. Aside from the faith issues, I think this is a good standard for high public office, particularly president.

    If a man is not even qualified to be an elder or deacon in a church, why would they be qualified to lead a nation of hundreds of millions of people?

    Newt is brilliant, but … brilliance is not enough.

  • Greta

    It seems amazing that some are so bothered by Newt marriage situation when compared to the current president who supports butchering babies in the womb and even those who manage to escape the murder attempt. But now we also have three years of the most inept and distructive presidency in history on top of his love of abortion. What was that the Catholic Church says about needing to find a proportionate reason to ever vote for or support a pro abortion candidate?

    If Obama gets into office again, there is little doubt he will replace at least two supeme court justices with solid pro abortion names. A vote for him this time should leave no doubt it is a vote to keep alive abortion for at lest another generation. Newt will find and appoint judges like Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas as reliable voices to end national legal abortion and certainly will use his executive power to limit any support of abortion or the planned parenthood abortion mills.

  • Michelene

    I think most of us are talking here about Gingrich vs. the other Republican candidates. If it’s down to Gingrich vs. Obama, I’ll throw out my reservations about Gingrich’s personal life and vote for him as the lesser of two evils.

    People are complicated and not always what they seem, especially regarding the public vs. private persona. I think that’s what we’re trying to “judge” here: is there a disconnect? As we’ve seen all too often, there are plenty of people who talk “family values” or JPII Catholicism but live a life that’s anything but.

  • Klaire

    Michelene, “living the lift that’s anything bet” is the operative phrase. How do you know what kind of life Newt has lived in the past few years?

    If you want a taste of what is about as close to what’s possible to know the candidates, their faith, and how and why the came to that faith, I just fournd the video for the faith based round table Thanksgiving hosted by Frank Lutz. Anyone who watches this couldn’t possibly come away with the some of the attitudes expressed above. I’m blown away as to how ,much they opened their hearts.

    All are there excpet Romney. All are impressive. The candidates come on after 30 minutes. If you can only watch a part of it, I suggest the last hour, where thye candidates really get personal.

  • dry valleys
  • Todd

    “Personally I find it head spinning that any Catholic could dismiss Newt for “what he was” rather than what he has become by the grace and mercy of God, the sacraments, and Catholicsim.”

    Okay. Then let’s talk something classical rather than sentimental.

    I think his ethics violations as Speaker are important, and I think his willingness to engage in serial monogamy while positioning himself as a harpy against a president’s immoral behavior. It is possible that the man has reformed. But clearly power has been a problem for the man, and more so the higher he rose in government.

    If Mr Gingrich were my friend, I might counsel him against running for president. Write books, teach courses, speak publicly, get a media show: why not? It’s one thing to show forgiveness to a sinner. It’s another to send a pedophile to Scout camp, a compulsive gambler to Vegas, or a nicotine addict to a gentleman’s club because we think they might have something positive to contribute that aligns with our personal philosophy.

    But if Republican Catholics want to tout their brother for the nomination, all I have to say is that as a third party American who finds Mr Obama too conservative, go for it. If I could vote in the Iowa GOP caucuses, I’d support the man, too.

  • Manny

    Todd, LOL, there isn’t a single Republican in the entire country that you would entertain a possibility of your vote.

    With that said, Newt is deeply flawed as I outlined in my previous comment above. There are roles for Newt to play in the scheme of our public debate, but being POTUS is not one of them. By the way, thank you for pointing earlier out I “nailed” it.