Gingrich's confession

March 16, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Conservative icon Newt Gingrich has wiped away whatever doubts I had that he might be planning to run for president.

The former House speaker recently revealed on national television that he had an affair with a young staffer, who is now his wife, while seeking President Bill Clinton's impeachment in connection with, of all things, Mr. Clinton's affair with a young intern.

Presidential candidates do not normally toss their bonnet into the political ring by publicly announcing that they have had an extramarital affair, but these are not normal times. Republicans have been expressing surprisingly deep disappointment with the choices they have been offered.

And, yes, Democrats are nervous about whether their two front-runners can go the distance.

It's significant in that sense that Mr. Gingrich's confession just happened to follow Sen. Barack Obama's riveting account of his parents' connection to the civil rights movement.

Speaking at the 42nd commemoration of the "Bloody Sunday" confrontation over voting rights in Selma, Ala., the Illinois Democrat energized a church crowd by linking the event to his birth. "There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama," he preached, "because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So [my parents] got together, and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama."

It was such a spellbinding story that I almost didn't want to wonder how the 1965 march could have led to the senator's birth, which happened four years earlier.

These are the days in which candidates project to voters their best sides through gripping stories of their lives, struggles and epiphanies. A little embellishment of one's life story is permissible in that pursuit, but one should at least keep the timelines straight.

Critics accused New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of similar biographical embellishment that day, although the charge appears to be a bum rap. In another Selma church, she recalled poignantly how seeing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago had inspired her during her high school years. Unmentioned were her descriptions of herself in her memoirs during those years as "a Goldwater girl, right down to my cowgirl outfit."

Because Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP's 1964 presidential candidate, was one of six Republican senators to join Southern Democratic segregationists in opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Mrs. Clinton's admiration of Dr. King sounded contradictory. But as the liberal Media Matters for America Web site points out, the senator's 2003 memoir Living History explains the seeming contradiction in detail. A liberal minister taught her to admire Dr. King and a conservative teacher taught her to admire Mr. Goldwater, both for their rugged individualism that "swam against the political tide," even if in different political directions. It fits nicely into the middle-of-the-road narrative frame that appeals to the swing voters Mrs. Clinton is trying to reach.

Which brings us back to Mr. Gingrich. His time may have come. The right is restless, hungry for a hero these days. A CBS/New York Times poll released Tuesday found nearly six in 10 Republicans said they wanted more choices than the candidates in the race. So if I were Mr. Gingrich right now, I'd be thinking: "Why not me?" If Rudolph W. Giuliani implodes as more conservatives find out about his support for gay rights, abortion rights and gun control, Mr. Gingrich will look increasingly like Luke Skywalker against the encroaching liberal Empire.

Mr. Gingrich is smart to get the bad news about his personal life out now, along with his apologies. American voters can be quite forgiving, as long as you keep your facts straight.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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