Conservative icon Newt Gingrich has wiped away whatever doubts I had that he might be planning to run for president.
The former House speaker has revealed on national television that he conducted an affair with a young staffer, who is now his wife, while seeking President Bill Clinton's impeachment in connection with, of all things, an affair with a young intern. Gingrich admitted in an interview with James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, that he had "fallen short of my own standards. There's certainly times when I've fallen short of G-d's standards."
I leaped to one conclusion: Oh, yeah, Newt's running.
Candidates do not normally toss their bonnet into the political ring by announcing on national TV that they have had an extramarital affair, but these are not normal times.
The 2008 race is unusually wide open. With no incumbent president or vice president in the race, both parties have crowded fields. Yet, Republicans have been expressing surprisingly deep disappointment with the choices they have been offered.
And, yes, Democrats are nervous about whether their two current frontrunners can go the distance.
It's significant in that sense that Gingrich's confession just happened to follow Sen. Barack Obama's riveting account of his parents' connection to the civil rights history that did not happen quite in the way that he recounted it.
Speaking at the commemoration of the 1965 "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 Selma event could have led to the senator's birth, which happened four years earlier. We might call it a story too good to allow facts to get in the way, were he not a presidential candidate.
These are the days of what I call the Narrative Primary, a Get-To-Know-Me period in which candidates project their best sides into the voters' minds through spellbinding stories of their lives, struggles and epiphanies. Obama eagerly wanted the civil rights generation folks in that sanctuary to embrace him as one of their own. A little embellishment of one's life story is permissible in that pursuit, but one should at least keep the timelines straight.
Critics have accused 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 Martin Luther King speak in Chicago had inspired her during her high school years. Unmentioned were her descriptions of herself in her memoirs during those years as "an active Young Republican" and "a Goldwater girl, right down to my cowgirl outfit." Ah, details, details.
Since 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, her admiration of King sounded contradictory to her critics. But, as the liberal Media Matters for America Web site points out, the New York senator's 2003 memoir "Living History" explains the seeming contradiction in detail. A liberal minister taught her to admire King and a conservative teacher taught her to admire Goldwater, both for their rugged individualism that "swam against the political tide," even if in different political directions.
"I liked them both personally," she says of the senator and the civil rights leader, "and did not see their beliefs as diametrically opposed then or now." Makes sense to me. It also fits nicely into the middle-of-the-road narrative frame that appeals to swing voters who Sen. Clinton is trying to reach.
Which brings us back to Gingrich. His time may have come. The right is restless, hungry for a hero these days. A CBS/ New York Times poll released Tuesday (March 13) found nearly 6 in 10 Republicans said they wanted more choices than the candidates already in the race.
So, if I were Newt right now I'd be thinking: Why not me? If Giuliani implodes as more conservatives find out about his past support for gay rights, abortion rights and gun control, Newt looks increasingly like Luke Skywalker against the encroaching liberal Empire.
As the author of a long list of fiction and nonfiction books, Gingrich understands the power of a good narrative. He's 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.