Monday, July 23 , 2018, 8:46 am | Fair 74º


Mark Shields: Gingrich’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ Defense

His 'patriotism made me do it' excuse for marital infidelity is anything but believable

When their actions or words violate the established norms of acceptable behavior, too many CEOs and politicians reflexively turn to the Non-Apology-Apology.

Implying that people who are upset by what he said or did are somehow overly sensitive, the offending party unapologetically offers, “If I in any way offended anyone, then I would want to apologize.”

A tiresome evasion is the use of the passive case to distance the nonapologizer from any moral responsibility: “Mistakes were made.” How refreshing it would be to hear from a public figure: “What I did was wrong and indefensible. I am sorry. I apologize and ask for your forgiveness.”

But when it comes to creative excuse-making, nobody comes even close to former House speaker and likely 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who wrapped himself in Old Glory this past week while explaining his past marital infidelity to the Christian Broadcasting Network: “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Picture the scene. Gingrich patriotically working around-the-clock, and then some damn temptress strolls by humming, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and the next thing you know, just because of how passionately he feels for the old U.S.A., they’re canoodling and worse.

His “patriotism made me do it” defense is as nervy as it is imaginative, although it might have been more believable if he had been caught cheating with Betsy Ross and/or the Daughters of the American Revolution.

If this Newt-onian logic had prevailed in 1776, Nathan Hale might have stated, “I only regret that I have but one wife to lose for my country.”

We really should be a little sympathetic to the former speaker, for whom his surges of patriotism were apparently an irresistible aphrodisiac.

Consider what moral theologians call “the occasions of sin” that relentlessly tempted Gingrich: every Fourth of July, any band playing a John Philip Sousa march, Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell, New York and the Statue of Liberty, the glimpse of a high-flying American bald eagle, the U.S. Capitol — where he worked — as well as the Washington Monument.

Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism from the Baptist faith, tells us that he is now a changed man, happily devoted to his third wife, Calista. I knew Gingrich when he was a Baptist, and he was not an unqualified admirer of the Church of Rome. Twenty-five years ago, this is what he had to say publicly about the then-retiring House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass.:

“O’Neill was a very passionate local politician representing the Irish Catholic Boston system that (James Michael) Curley had made famous, and in many ways he never evolved much beyond that,” Gingrich said. “He was a pretty effective legislative leader, with an occasional instinct for national activity, but one who always started from what he knew and learned in the saloons and streets of Boston.”

Curley, born in 1874, was the brilliant but corrupt four-term Boston mayor who served a jail term. O’Neill was neither a Curley partisan nor an acolyte.

Gingrich often brings to mind the unflattering line about the British politician Peter Mandelson that, for him, “the truth was like a second home — he didn’t live there all the time.”

Given Gingrich’s unabashed nationalism and his propensity for hard work, and the problems that combination has allegedly produced in the past, his winning the presidency — a backbreaking job — just might by his own frank admission put at risk his recently cherished fidelity.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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