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Defending Newt (Sort Of)

We knew that Newt Gingrich was an adulterer (he eventually married his mistress). Why does it make it worse that he wanted an "open marriage"?

Marianne Gingrich, Newt's second of three wives, told ABC News that when she learned Newt was having an affair, he said, " 'You want me all to yourself. Callista doesn't care what I do.'... He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused." An open marriage, Marianne said, "is not a marriage."

Most people would judge Gingrich harshly for saying what Marianne said he said. To have an affair is bad; to tell your wife when she finds out about it that you want an open marriage is worse. Gingrich, by denying it so emphatically at last night's GOP debate ("Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false") demonstrated that he, too, thinks that it's worse. But why is it worse? 

Logically speaking, there are two ways to commit adultery. One way--the path favored by most people--is to hide your adulterous relationship from your wife or husband, which usually involves some lying. The other way--the path Marianne says Newt proposed after his affair came to light--is to have your affair out in the open. This is not unheard of, even in straight-laced Washington. For years, Joan Braden, wife of the political columnist Tom Braden (author of Eight Is Enough, a whimsical family memoir later turned into a TV series, and Pat Buchanan's original partner on Crossfire) openly carried out a romantic relationship with Robert McNamara. (He was no longer a public official.) She even briefly shopped a memoir that recounted this and other dalliances until she was shamed into withdrawing it. There is no possibility that Tom Braden (a former CIA official) didn't know. Would it have been more "moral" for Joan to carry out her affair without Tom (or anyone else) finding out?

Many would say that the decent thing to do, once your affair has been exposed, is either to a.) end the affair and patch up the marriage; or b.) divorce the current spouse and marry the lover. Option a.) is preferable, as Ross Douthat will be happy to explain to you at patience-trying length, but only--here's a caveat Douthat would likely reject--if all other things are equal. And in situations like this it's pretty often the case that all other things aren't equal--that matters extraneous to the affair, or emotional fallout from the affair, make it impossible for the marriage to continue. Option b.) likely brings great pain to both parties (probably more to one than the other) and can be brutal on children (of whom Newt and Marianne had none). But society deems it an acceptable option, and whatever taboo attached to it in politics was removed with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, our first divorced president. It's even OK, most people would agree (though probably not Douthat), to modify option b.) by declining to marry your lover (who may not be the marrying kind) and either living alone or finding a third person with whom to have a romantic relationship.

According to Marianne, Newt was proposing an option c.): I screw around, you screw around, we both know, but we share the same roof and eat dinner together. If all three parties agree to it, what business is it of anyone else's? From a utilitarian point of view, this is hard to argue with, and during the 1970s a lot of people argued for it. So why are even cosmopolitan people now appalled? Certainly the sexual utopianism of the 1970s was extremely naive about most people's emotional sensitivity to sexual infidelity. Open marriage sounded great in theory but in practice it wrought terrible damage on the married parties, their families, and even conceivably on their friends. Like a lot of cultural changes contemplated in the 1970s, it was too good to be true. But that isn't really a moral argument against open marriage so much as a psychological one. Why, then, do we think Newt's purported eagerness to contemplate open marriage is so appalling? Because it makes him seem unstable? Abnormally inured to emotional pain? Too willing to pledge his loyalty in too many conflicting directions? Get real. We already know he's all three. We don't need to go poking around his sex life to learn that.

No, I think the real reason Marianne's accusation has the power to shock has nothing to do with morality. I think it shocks because it forces you to contemplate Newt Gingrich having sex. The standard response I've heard to the news is, "Ugh, the idea of Gingrich rutting is putting me off my lunch." Why the phrase "open marriage" should have the power to do this I don't know, but it's probably because it conjures up vivid collective mental images of the 1970s and 1980s--open-shirted swingers with too-wide lapels trekking to Plato's Retreat and then sweatily discussing the experience on late-night cable television, Jackie O. being photographed going in to see I Am Curious Yellow, etc., etc.--that a lot of us, even people who weren't alive at the time, would like to forget. The swinger subculture continues to linger but eventually it had the good sense to go underground. To most people (probably even many who participate in it) it's creepy and embarrassing. Plug into this collective set of mental images a chubby, white-haired, ludicrously self-assured politician and it graduates from skeevy to repulsive.