John King’s Question To Newt Gingrich Was Fair, And Newt’s Past Is Fair Game

Getting to the heart of last night's moment of kabuki theater.

In my wrap-up of last night’s debate this morning, I took note of the moment that not only set the tone for the entire event but also may end up being the reason that Newt Gingrich wins the South Carolina primary. I’m referring, of course, to the first five minutes or so of the debate when CNN’s moderator John King asked Newt Gingrich about the allegations that had become news just that afternoon arising out of the ABC News interview of his second wife Marianne. Gingrich’s response, of course, is brought down the house and has caused many on the right to rally behind him over the past twenty-four hours.

Much of the focus has been on the question of whether it was even appropriate to ask the question. Predictably, how one feels about this question depends at least in part on which candidate one happens to be supporting in the primary, but even some writers about the practice of journalism have taken to criticizing King for leading the debate off with such a salacious question. Roy Peter Clark, for example, lists a number of reasons why he thinks King was wrong and Gingrich was right, including these:

1.  Political power is a seductive business. There is plenty of evidence — from all political parties — that hotshot politicians routinely cheat on their spouses. It’s not important news.

2. The fact that men (or women) cheat on their wives does not mean they can’t lead us to peace and prosperity.

3. We all know that cheaters are likely to be hypocrites, preaching the sanctity of marriage, while playing the beast with two backs on the side. Still not important news.

4. Political leaders not known for cheating on their wives (take Nixon or Carter) do not necessarily become great presidents.

Clark goes on to say that King could have raised the question later in the debate, a point I made myself this morning. Perhaps if he’d done so it would have blunted some of the emotional resonance of Gingrich’s reply. After all, asking about this issue at the 73rd minute doesn’t necessarily evoke the same emotional outburst as asking it right off the bat. For his part, King said last night that he made the decision to lead with the allegations by Gingrich’s ex-wife because they were the most prominent news story of the day:

King, who seemed defensive during Gingrich’s onslaught, took full responsibility for the question.

“This is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the debate. “It was my judgment, my decision, and mine alone. If we’re going to deal with it, let’s deal with it upfront, let’s not try to sneak it into the middle of the debate somewhere.”

King elaborated on that decision later in a conversation with POLITICO. “My old AP training is, you deal with the lead of the day upfront first,” he said. “I respect anybody who disagrees, but we made our decision.”

“[Newt’s] criticism of the media is his right,” King continued. “He has the same First Amendment we do. It’s a tactic he’s used throughout the debate season.”

Asked how long the confrontation would remain a subject of debate in the media, King said he didn’t know. “That’s not for me to decide,” he said.

Gingrich did not appear angry when he was also interviewed by Cooper, telling him: “I thought it was a great debate. I thought John King did a great job.”

King also said in another interview that after the debate he had a pleasant conversation with Newt and Callista Gingrich, and that he understood that Gingrich was doing what he had to do to “win the room.”

That last comment is perhaps the most important point to take away from this entire incident. Gingrich clearly knew that this issue would come up during the debate at some point, there’s no way that it wouldn’t really. For most of the day, the media had been talking about what his ex-wife was going to say, and then when ABC leaked the preview video showing her talking about Gingrich’s request to have an “open marriage.” The story was going to hang over the debate stage like a giant pink elephant until it came up. More importantly, the Gingrich campaign spent the better part of the day on Thursday pushing back against the story and releasing a letter from Gingrich’s daughters calling on ABC to not air an interview that they contended was making false allegations. The campaign also apparently gave ABC statements from Gingrich friends disputing the allegations that Marianne Gingrich made in the preview video. In other words, this had become a campaign story.

More to the point, it is fairly obvious that Gingrich’s answer, including the anger he showed that got the crowd so riled up was planned. Obviously, Gingrich could not have anticipated when King would ask the question, but he knew the question would be asked and he had a response ready to go. It’s no different than the second Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984 when, after a disastrous debate performance that caused many to wonder if he was up to the task of being President at his age, President Reagan came back with a response didn’t really answer the question but nonetheless ended the controversy once and for all. It was a political masterstroke, but it was also obviously a line that Reagan or his advisers had come up with during debate preparation. It worked, just like Gingrich’s confrontation with John King may end up working out for Gingrich.

So, let’s not pretend that what we saw on television last night was some kind of spontaneous display of bravado. It was a cold, calculated political maneuver by Gingrich designed to avoid his being forced to answer embarrassing questions about his past.

One can argue, perhaps, over whether or not it was appropriate for King to ask this kind of question at the top of the debate. The more I think about it, the less convinced I am that my initial opinion about it being an inappropriate question to lead the debate off with may not be correct. The question was going to be asked. King knew it, Newt knew it, everyone else in the room knew it if they had given it any thought. Why delay the inevitable? In either case, I’m not sure that it matters all that much if the question was asked at 8:05pm or at 9:45pm.

More importantly, Gingrich’s past is a perfectly fair issue to ask him about, and cover as part of a Presidential campaign. This is a man who presided over the impeachment and prosecution of a President on “charges” that, in the end, had little to do with anything other than the fact that he had an affair with another woman. At the same time he was doing that, he was having an affair with a House Staffer while married to the woman who had had been having an affair with while still married to his first wife. After he left office, Gingrich spent much time opining on issues of morality and telling people that they have no right to get married just because they happen to be of the same gender. If, as the social conservatives in the GOP told us constantly during the Clinton Era, “character matters,” then does not the character of a man who once told his ex-wife that it didn’t matter if he actually lived up to the virtues he proclaimed in public life matter when he asks Americans to elect him President of the United States matter as well?

Gingrich did an excellent job of playing the victim last night, and his attack on the media will play well with a Republican base schooled on the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and taught at the knee of Sarah “Lamestream Media” Palin. His response was, as I said, politically masterfully. But the question that was asked of him was completely fair and relevant.

Peter Wehner sums up the whole affair quite well:

It was quite revealing to me that Mr. Gingrich, in his answer, didn’t show any contrition or remorse. Instead, he reacted with indignant self-righteousness. So think about this: Mr. Gingrich, a candidate for the presidency, is enraged because the press interviewed his ex-wife and, in the process, has drawn attention to his own infidelity and mistreatment of his ex-wife, which no one disputes. And in all of this the injured party isn’t Marianne Gingrich but rather Newt Gingrich. The offending party isn’t the former speaker; it’s the press for daring to raise this matter.

And that is exactly how Gingrich wanted it to work out.

Photo via CNN

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Bingo. There is a lot of criticism about King’s choice of question, but the only proper criticism is of his absolute failure to have anything to follow it with – he just sits there and takes the broadside from Gingrich and it’s clear that while he may have worked on the decision to ask it, he never spared a moment’s thought about what would happen after he asked. That’s where King failed.

  2. John425 says:

    The media barely noticed Bill Clinton’s infidelities when Hillary ran against Obama. Funny how the GOP is controversial and Democrats are not. Wonder if they’ll dig into Obama’s cocaine usage as deeply as they’ll delve into Gingrich?

  3. Yes, the question was fair, and, from what I’ve seen of him, Gingrich probably would have had a tantrum if it hadn’t been asked, blaming King and CNN for not giving him a chance to respond to a story they knew was on everyone’s mind. Bullying through a display of sanctimonious outrage was the only card Gingrich had to play. Otherwise, he’d have had to say, either “Yes, I wanted an ‘open marriage'” or “No, I wanted to cheat but expected my wife not to” and then insist either that moral character doesn’t matter or that adultery is either morally neutral or morally good. That obviously won’t sell among the conservatives he’s trying to fool. So he went with attacking the media, and, regrettably, a lot of people seem to have bought in to the act.

  4. @John425:

    Leaving aside the fact that everyone already knew about Bill Clinton’s past, what relevance would his personal history have to his wife’s candidacy for President?

  5. Pete says:

    Masterful of Gingrich; knows the hostility the right has for the media and manipulated it perfectly. I’m a conservative and this lineup of clowns is gonna keep me home. Just hope gridlock envelopes DC so that ship of fools is neutered from harming all of us any further.

  6. It’s no different than the second Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984 when, after a disastrous debate performance that caused many to wonder if he was up to the task of being President at his age, President Reagan came back with a response didn’t really answer the question but nonetheless ended the controversy once and for all. It was a political masterstroke, but it was also obviously a line that Reagan or his advisers had come up with during debate preparation. It worked, just like Gingrich’s confrontation with John King may end up working out for Gingrich.

    Actually, there is one big difference, and it’s one that underlines why Reagan was fit to be President and Gingrich is not: when faced with an uncomfortable issue, Reagan’s instinct was to defuse it with humor. Gingrich’s was to feign outrage and attack the messenger.

  7. Hey Norm says:

    The fact that this old story, dredged up from Esquire archives, is even a topic of discussion is indicative of the weakness of the Republican field.
    We have 8.5% unemployment. Israel trying to provoke Iran into a war. The Eurozone on the verge of collapse. Global warming totally f’ing with the icecaps.
    And we’re talking about Gingrichs indiscretions from the last f’ing century.
    Yeah…the Republicans are serious about governing.

  8. tyndon clusters says:

    After watching and hearing yet another republican debate where the crowd (in the south) applauds some ridiculous remark by the charlatans on the stage, I really can understand the exuberance my great great grandfather and other like minded Yankess must have had when they burned Atlanta to the ground and shot musketballs into the heads of the dirty rotten southern confederate traitors.

    When rick perry talks about Texas and South Carolina being at”war” with the federal government and the hillbillies explode into applause, it makes me wish that Sherman’s March would have been a thousand miles wide.

    Just as in Iraq, when we went in with too few troops and faced rebellion (unlike Japan and Germany which we devastated with firebombs and the A bomb) Johnny Reb just wasn”t pummeled and humiliated enough to take the fight out of ’em.

    Because we have to drag the ignorance, stupidity and foolishness of the south around like a giant globe on the shoulders of Atlas, its no wonder that we have imploded the past 30 years since the rednecks have been firmly in charge of Congress.

    Their hatred of the federal government and science and racial equality is a pure manifestation of the sickness we should have eradicated 150 years. ago.

    Yeah, yeah, I know there are some good southern folks out there, just like there’s some great black water polo players, but come on now, after 30 years of infantile behavior on the part of the vast majority of the hicks, its almost impossible to identify any.

  9. Tillman says:

    Gingrich clearly knew that this issue would come up during the debate at some point, there’s no way that it wouldn’t really.

    John King could’ve chosen not to ask the obvious question about marital infidelity at all. He thought tabloid rumormongering was better material for a question than, say, something about diplomatic relations with Russia considering their actions in the Security Council vis a vis Syria. (I didn’t watch the debate; did he ask a question like this?) If he wanted to ask challenging questions, all it would’ve taken is an afternoon’s worth of research on the candidates’ foreign policy platforms.

    It’s a lamestream media alright, but not for the reasons pundits normally cite.

  10. Tillman says:

    @tyndon clusters: Ahh, hello, Other Side of the Same Coin. How’s Heads doing?

  11. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    I think the problem is entirely the timing. Giving Newt the opportunity to be “outraged” at the very beginning of the debate was foolish. It put King, and the legitimacy of the debate, in question from the outset and gave Gingrich moral high ground that he might not have had later. Further, it potentially cast all of the criticism of Gingrich that came later in the “there you go again” catagory of picking at trifles.

    I don’t see the debates in Korea because my cable system doesn’t have CNN (and because I’ve questioned the legitimacy of the debates–and the number–from the start [particularly with this clown show]), so I can only discuss this from what I read on the web. But, I wonder if the question would have had the same resonnance with the audience if it had, for example come a question or two after Santorum had just finished describing Gingrich as “grandiose.”

    I admire John King for remembering his “old AP training.” Perhaps if he had also remembered that writing an interview allows the interviewer the ability to control when the reader gets the sensitive information much differently than a live broadcast format debate does, he would have realized that his training probably didn’t apply here.

    When I first read about the question, my reaction was that maybe King had decided to throw Newt a softball, but I realized later that John King was probably chosen by CNN more for his photogenic qualities than his journalism, so I discarded that idea.

  12. Dazedandconfused says:

    King reflected journalism today. They are self absorbed, and forget that what is “leading” at the moment might not be important.
    He didn’t have to ask the question. Lucky for Newt, he did.

    Newt won a battle, but set himself up very badly for the war. I can’t imagine many women buying this BS. Many will know he just called his ex-wife a damned liar. His rant against Juan and the meme that they are unemployed because they don’t know how to work (and Newt will teach them) will do the same thing for blacks, prompting them to turn out in high numbers again.

    Is this really what it takes to win the Republican primary these days? Mean, stupid, and ugly? Reagan was never, ever that.

  13. MM says:

    To me the alarming thing is that John King allowed himself to get lit up on national TV and can just shrug it off as Gingrich just trying to play the game. It’s the Chris Matthews school of boiling everything down to a tactic. It erodes confidence in the media and in politicians to basically shrug their every action off as part of the game.

    Plus, if i were a GOP strategist, my advice would be to jump on King about the liberal media at every opportunity. He won’t defend himself or his colleagues, and apparently doesn’t have enough self-respect to even care.

  14. Arnonerik says:

    What makes that line of questioning wrong is the media bias. If the main stream media treated Democrats and Republicans alike any question would be fine. John Edwards was having an affair while running for president that the media was aware of, but never touched it and Obama is yet to be vetted by the MSM, but they jump at the chance to embarrass and vilify Conservatives and Republicans.
    No, there is nothing wrong with the question but there is something drastically wrong with ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN unashamedly acting as the attack arm for the Democrat Party. They have no credibility.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Gingrich did an excellent job of playing the victim…

    SOP for Gingrich and many of his fellow travelers…

    Ahh, hello, Other Side of the Same Coin. How’s Heads doing?

    Oh? There are politicians other than Southerners and/or Republicans using racist dog whistle rhetoric and making quasi-treasonous statements?

    …Obama is yet to be vetted by the MSM…

    Exactly what vetting has the MSM not done yet…

  16. merl says:

    @John425: Why would they ask Hilary Clinton about her husband’s “affairs”? She was running, not him. And that slimeball Gingrich sure didn’t mind all of the attacks on Clinton, did he? Now he’s getting all self righteous about it? That man is scum and so is anyone who would vote for him

  17. merl says:

    @Arnonerik: Vetted by the Press? what the hell is that supposed to mean anyway? You don’t remember all of the talk about his preacher and palling around with terrorists and being a socialist Kenyan? I swear to God, you people are actually brain dead, whining crying “victims” every one of you.

  18. Hanging this off the most recent Gingrich thread … my sudden thought, after watching some people in the crowd at Morning Joe’s South Carolina show, and skimming the Chuck Norris endorsement is … that conservatives want to go down fighting in 2012.

    It isn’t at all that they think Newt will win.

    They expect him to lose angry, and they’re on board with that.

  19. Fiona says:

    So, let’s not pretend that what we saw on television last night was some kind of spontaneous display of bravado. It was a cold, calculated political maneuver by Gingrich designed to avoid his being forced to answer embarrassing questions about his past.

    I think this is the crux of the problem. King had to know that Newt was going to puff himself up into a big ball of self-righteous indignation and turn the attack back on the “liberal” media. Asking the question the way that he did and then refusing to follow up allowed Newt to toss out red meat to the base and set the tone for the rest of the debate. It also enabled Newt to play the victim card–oh look how the press is picking on me and being nasty. Sickening but the crowd lapped it up.

    Newt’s personal life, because it reeks of his hypocrisy, should be fair game, but not in a debate venue.

  20. Lomax says:

    I think that the news media should stick to the issues – not gossip and torrid soap opera topics. Jobs, taxes, economy, oversized government, terrorists, defense, gas prices, etc. Not the frivolous fluff that the news media wants to dominate these debates with and get the people distracted on non-essentials.

  21. @Lomax:

    But when a party defines itself by morality, nay religiosity, what do you do?

  22. (I think some want to be “sunshine moralists.”)

  23. Eric says:

    Wow. Years ago everything in this article would have been filed under “The Bleeding Obvious.” Today’s audience, dumbed down by Fox News and reality shows, has to have it explained to them. After reading this I want to resurrect the phrase common on the ’80s, “No s*** Sherlock!”

  24. Eric Florack says:

    Let’s remember, gang… this press that was so bent on “doing it’s job” has been carrying Obama’s water for 4 years already… and ignored it’s self-appointed role as moral arbitor for the better part of a decade with Bill “Better put some ice on that” Clinton.

    Can you imagine the response had such questions been asked of Clinton in a debate situation?

  25. @Eric Florack:

    The thing you don’t get is that it would be a totally different dynamic. Bill did not run on moral values, nor did his party make “defense of marriage” it’s centerpiece in recent campaigns.

    I mean, be real. In 2008 the big wedge issue to get out the vote in many places (like the OC) was getting a “marriage” law on the ballot. That wasn’t the Dems, and it wasn’t the Dems reversing course to say “well, marriage isn’t really such a big deal” or “morality isn’t such a big deal.”

    Geez Louise dudes, you’ve got candidates with one wife and no known affairs. You could have given THEM the standing ovation.

  26. Shorter: Of course social conservatives are supposed to act socially conservative!

    The fact that social liberals have acted socially liberal is not a get our of jail free card. Not if you believe YOUR values.

  27. MBunge says:

    If what Newt did in this previous marriage over a decade ago is fair game today, why doesn’t somebody ask Mitt Romney about the Mormon church’s previous policy of excluding African-Americans? They repealed that practice in 1978 when I believe Mitt was 31 years old, which means he spent at least 10 years of his adult life in a religion that was officially and functionally segregationist. How is one less relevant than the other?

    Mike

  28. MBunge says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “Leaving aside the fact that everyone already knew about Bill Clinton’s past, what relevance would his personal history have to his wife’s candidacy for President?”

    1. The possibility of another national scandal if Bill cheats on her again while she’s President.

    2. Does anyone actually think Bill’s behavior has had NO impact on his wife emotionally and even psychologically? There are people who get cheated on by their high school sweetheart who carry that betrayal with them the rest of their lives. Doesn’t the fact the Hilary stayed with him after all his stuff tell us as much or more about her as a person than anything else in her life?

    I know a lot of folks hate Newt and I can’t say it’s exactly undeserved, but you need to stop clutching at anything you think makes him look bad.

    Mike

  29. @MBunge:

    Duh. If (that’s all true and) Mitt was a principal in that decision it would be news.

    Imagine if he was one of those who opened the church!

  30. Eric Florack says:

    Bill did not run on moral values, nor did his party make “defense of marriage” it’s centerpiece in recent campaigns.

    Bill Clinton signed DOMA.
    Gingrich has had little if anything to say on the moral values issues.

    Next?

  31. MBunge says:

    @john personna: “uh. If (that’s all true and) Mitt was a principal in that decision it would be news.”

    1. You know the amazing thing you can do with the internet? You can look crap up before responding to someone else’s statement. Try it sometime.

    2. So, if Mitt used to belong to the Ku Klux Klan, it wouldn’t matter unless he was a “principal” in the organization? When Mitt Romney was 30 years old, he was a willing and active member of a church that excluded black people. How the hell is that less relevant in Presidential politics than Newt’s being a pitiful excuse for a husband?

    Mike

  32. @MBunge:

    I cut anyone slack who honors their father’s religion, nonviolently.

    If the world had my attitude we’d all be better off.

    And of course, if we all equated quiet Mormons to the Ku Klux Klan, we’d all be f’n nuts.

  33. @Eric Florack:

    Bill Clinton signed DOMA.

    Political move, different than campaigning on it.

    Or are you actually telling me that Democrats and Republicans make equal claims to be the values party, the Christians, the defenders of marriage?

    Which group goes to the pastors for endorsements?

  34. Eric Florack says:

    How the hell is that less relevant in Presidential politics than Newt’s being a pitiful excuse for a husband?

    Point of order;

    On what basis do we aver that Newt was the problem in that particular?
    Is it possible that he was reacting to a less than stellar performance from his then wife? Divorce, as it happens, is something that happens approximately 50% of the time somebody says “I do”. Is it always the fault of the man?

    I mean, I don’t know either way, but then neither do you. Or, anyone else, for that matter.

    Further, and as I have said elsewhere, finding an ex- husband or ex-wife who is actually LIKED by their ex, is in fact the rarity, not the norm. Further, the story is better than a decade old, and didn’t gain all that much traction the first time around.

  35. MM says:

    @Eric Florack: Newt Gingrich was the champion of a School Prayer Amendment.

  36. MM says:

    @MBunge:

    1. You know the amazing thing you can do with the internet? You can look crap up before responding to someone else’s statement. Try it sometime.

    Irony alert.

  37. MuseofHell says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Is it possible that he was reacting to a less than stellar performance from his then wife?

    I believe that we all consider infidelity or adultery to be personally “wrong” or, at the very least, “unacceptable” in any relationship, regardless of what excuse is given for the behavior. Are you saying that it would be justified or acceptable if Gingrich’s wife had been a “less than stellar” performer (and performer in what sense)?
    The reason Mr. Gingrich’s (or any other candidate’s) personal behavior is a legitimate topic of debate in a Presidential campaign is that it is an indicator of his character in general. I.e., if he finds it acceptable to have affairs (yes, plural), lie to his partner(s) and to repeat this behavior while a “public servant” for a number of years, then he believes that there are situations where promises, treaties, contracts and other agreements can be secretly abrogated without any penalty, as long as no one finds out.
    The job of President of the United States places one in a position where personal integrity is absolutely required in order to make sound judgments and be trusted to stand behind any decision made as such. At the very least, our allies need to be assured that what a President says is what he means and that he will stand behind any agreement he makes, even if he thinks differently of the agreement later, or, at the very least, if he changes his mind or belief about a previous commitment, he will renegotiate the agreement rather than secretly violating the agreement.

  38. grumpy realist says:

    @Eric Florack: So how does a lack of performance from his then-wife give Newt carte blanche to have an affair? If he had had the integrity of a slime mold, he would have divorced FIRST and then had the relationship with Callista afterwards.

    And we’re not talking about a one-time slip after which the two people work things out. Newt cheated for six years. That’s not a slip; that’s a man who thinks the promises he made to his wife before God don’t apply and who thinks he can do what he wants.

    Add to that his contemporaneous denunciations of Clinton and what you have is a canting Tartuffe.

  39. Rob in CT says:

    The man was railing against the horrible Clintonmonster at the *very same time* he was cheating on his own wife.

    He is slime. Shameless, hypocritical slime.

    This is a man running for the nomination of a party that supposedly cares about “family values” – a party that preaches endlessly about those values and screams constantly about the failings of others (Clinton, Edwards, various Kennedys…). Now you’re gonna nominate Newt?

    Hahahahahaha. Yet another in a loooong line of Republicans who’s all “do as I say, not as I do” along with the anti-gay GOPers who often turn out to be closet cases. Like Newt told his ex: it doesn’t matter how I live. It’s all about the message! IOKIYAR (it’s ok if you’re Republican). The amusing bit is that he hasn’t even had to do the weepy apology thing. Nope. Just go with double-barrelled anger instead. It works even better!

    Newt might’ve made an interesting Pope (would’ve been a Borgia).

  40. Gulliver says:

    “..Newt’s Past is Fair Game”

    But Obama’s never has been, curiously enough. No double standards here … move along, move along.

    The liberals haven’t got a clue as to the resentment bubbling out there just under the surface. It’s more than enough to get the average -read ” a significant majority of” – conservatives, independents, and right leaning Dem’s (i.e Reagan Democrats) to forgo the usual litmus tests involved in a General. The frustration has been coming to a boil over the last two years and It’s going to leave a great searing mark on the posterior of the Democratic Party over the upcoming year . Keystone was the last straw for many, many people who drank the coolaid in 2008. If you thought 2010 was bad for liberals…