Does the media have a right to discuss candidates' personal lives?

Jan 20, 2012

Thursday's Republican debate in South Carolina got off to a combative start as the moderator, CNN's John King, asked Gingrich to respond to interviews in which his second wife, Marianne, said he asked her to agree to an open marriage while he was having an affair.

A defiant Gingrich said "the story is false" and lashed out at what he described as "the destructive, vicious, negative nature" of the media.

Was questioning Gingrich about his alleged "open marriage" request to his ex-wife a fair way to start off the debate? Does the media have the right to openly discuss a candidates personal life, and if so, to what extent? Is it ever ok?

Chat with Bradley Hirschfield about these topics. Tell him what you think and ask questions now.

How much of a candidate's life is fair game in an election?  From an ex-wife's claim about open marriage to tax returns, from how a miscarriage was mourned to long-ago politcal writings, how much of this matters?


Join in with your questions and comments as we address ongoing questions concerning what we need to know about the lives of the cadidates and why we need to know it.  Is this stuff really important, or have we simply found a way to feed our hunger for soap operas without feeling bad about it?


Are we voyeurs or vigilant voters?


Let's go!

As much as I'd like to weigh in on whether it's right and wrong to discuss a candidate's personal life along the campaign trail, the realist in me can't get around one simple yet sad fact: in order to get elected to higher office, most times you need to sell out your own mother to get ahead. Which unfortunately means digging up any and all dirt on your political opponent, where even the littlest dirt is fair game. As I said, a simple yet sad reality of politics. I think Groucho Marx said it best: "I haven't seen this much mudslinging since the last election!"

As much as I would like to settle for your response, I just can't -- and neither should you. 


Being a realist does not mean that we can pretend that politics exists as some independant force.  The situation you describe is only as it is because we -- at least a great many of us -- want it that way.  Were it otherwise, the approach you mention as being necessary to gete elected, would not work!  We could reject those candidates who focus on the negative, especially the personal details of their opponents' lives.


And in terms of last night, the candidates actually coalesced in defense of Gingrich's outburst regarding the inappropriatness of John King's openining question.  And in truth, was it REALLY the best opening if we REALLY do want more than a soap opera?

Running for office is a very public step. Candidates have to expect that their personal lives will be scrutinized. I think Gingrich "doth protest too much." How could he not expect the coverage?

Some scrutiny, i get -- i think we all do.  And the issue is not so much personal vs public lives, because both have some importance.  but what value is there in determing whetehr or not Newt asked his wife for an open marriage?  what about that being true, if it were, would help anyone make a better choice about his candidacy?  after all, we already know he was a serial cheater, so what does this add beyond the titilation factor?

Yes, inquiring minds need to know. Doesn't a man's (or woman) commitment and adherence to his wedding vows, or pledge to a life-partner speak to a person's integrity and honesty?

based on your observation about inquiring minds needing to know, and the ironic reference to the National Inquirer, i think that even you know it's not so clear that we need to know as much as we enjoy finding out.  that said, while i DO think that integrity and honesty are crucial in life, and especially so for those in leadership, there may be a difference between public and personal.


History is filled with great leaders, people with great integrity in their public lives, who had plenty of personal failures in that regard.  Mem as great as King and Gandhi come immediastely to mind, and Newt Gingrich is neither of them!  Who is?


My point is that even the greatest and most honest of public leaders, have at least some measure of the hubris and self-absorption that makes personal failings such as cheating on a spouse, that much more likely.  it doesn't excuse their behavior, but it probably shouldn't disqualify them from public service either.

In the case of Mr. Gingrich, Rabbi Hirschfield, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. When you've spent a good part of your political career sermonizing and demonizing gays and lesbians as unworthy of marriage when you have made a complete joke of the institution yourself, then it's totally appropriate and necessary. Bravo to Mr. King for bringing it up; I only wish he'd gone further and challenged Mr. Gingrich more strongly on his mind-boggling hypocrisy.

So for you, it's personal -- Newt has been harsh regarding the lives and choices of others, so he deserves the same.  Well, that is even-handed, if harsh, but it's also wrong-headed.  Your animating principle is punitive as opposed to what makes for better politics and politicians.  I mean don't get me wrong, but aren't you responding to a sermonizer and a demonizer (and NG has made a career of being both), with a little sermonizing and demonizing of your own?


Truthfully, I would have no problem with raising the issue, if someone could make a case for why it is relevant.  The 'bravo" for King would have been if he could have come back with a reasonable framing of why it was in fact a good opening question in light of the issues with which this nation isdealing.  he couldn't, so it ended up feeling like nothing more than gotcha journalism and did a great deal to make Newt the winner of the night.

They also have a duty to provide YouTube videos. It's boring in this cube, people!

What exactly would you like -- images of Newt with his then wife?  His new wife?


Seriously, your concern with being bored is why we spend so much time on stuff that makes little or no difference -- it's fun and it's easy.  But if that is what we really want, why not actually elect Steven Colbert, who has higher favorability ratings than any candidate for the presidency! 

There was nothing wrong in asking a candidate about his personal life and his moral values when he is running for public office. As Americans we all look up and respect our commander in chief. Why should we not know about his personal and private life. It's important that the voter knows who they are voting into office. Newt Gingrich has been a down right hypocrite. He was having an extra marital affair and he had the gall to point his finger at President Clinton.

Yes to raising issues of moral values, but that is not the same as seeking details about issues that have already been explored -- in this case Newt's philandering ways.  on top of that, such questions, especially among his base, forget the value they place on public admissions of failure and teh redemption which follows.  Did you hear Santorum mention that "as a nation we understand that people are fallen"?  While millions of us don;t share that theology, it plays well for many millions more and that is why Newt looked far better, and was understood far better than was John King.


As to hypocrisy, you are totally correct.  it just makes little difference because Newt has apologized in the interim and we are a forgiving lot, especially when it comes to people with problematic marriages.  It's why the attempt to toss Clinton failed.  We loved teh story of the stained blue dress, but didn't want to see him lose office over it.

If politicians want to politicize the personal lives of others, then their own lives are up for critique. Gingrich was involved in questioning Clinton's personal life, now he's running for the same office so it makes sense to see if he meets his own standard. This was completely relevant questioning, if only because Gingrich himself made it relevant.

You should be advising John King! 


If the question was one about how any politician can attack an opponent for that which they themselves are guilty off, it could have been an interesting exchange.  Though even there, Newt would have mobilized around his previous apology, the fact that most of us get most upset when we see in others those failing we hate most in ourselves, and then continued into how the media attacks rather than informs and gotten the same round of applause which he got.

Yes, politicians choose to put themselves in the spotlight. No one forced Gingrich to run for president or cheat on his first wife, second wife. Gingrich is the typical hypocritical politician. He isn't sorry that he cheated. He's "sorry" that the media is reporting it.

How can you possibly know what is in his heart?  And I say as that as one who shares at least some of that feeling, at least some of the time.  But how can we know?


And even more importantly, do you see how that presumption feeds his, or any other politician's, claim of being unfairly assaulted by a public, and/or press, that makes no room for forgiveness? 


Yes, politicians put themselves in a spotlight, but that spotlight can be shined in many directions and for many different pursposes.  It's just not clear to me that we always point appropriatly, at least if our hope is to get better leaders and not simply find better entertainment during each election cycle.

We can ask questions about a candidate's personal life if the issue is directly relevant to functioning as a president. Inquiring about the multiple marriages of Gingrich is not particularly relevant since there is no evidence that one type of marital status makes a person a better president than another. However, Gingrich also said that his x-wife's story was false. If, in fact, she is telling the truth, than this makes Gingrich a liar, and even worse. It means that he is willing to publicly denigrate his x-wife for his own personal ambition. And a person who will sacrifice another innocent human being in order to gain personal power is not a trait we want in any of our presidents.

Little to add, except, BRAVO!


Of course, we are unliekly to know if he ever asked for an oepn marriage or not, unless they ran their home like the Nixon White House -- with recording devices always in "on" mode.  Since that is unlikely, we will have to settle for know that Newt Gingrich is a very bright guy, with enormous verbal skills, who is also supremely arrogant and narcissistic.


Rather than focusing on whether or not he wanted an open marriage, which as you point out, is hardly important to his capacity to govern, we should revisit his claim that his philandering was, as he told Christian Broadcast Network months ago, a function of being so passionate about America and his work on its behalf.  Now THAT was one heck of a rationalization if I ever heard one -- one that suggests the ability and willingness to justify one's self at all cost.  And that IS a trait which effects how one governs...

Rabbi, when someone holds themselves out to be a model of "family values" (how I hate that term), the voting public has a right to examine their lives and their actions and see if they jive. Peace be with you!

And with you!


I actually love the term family values, though for me, it includes a wider variety of families than it does for most of those who use the term.  My thought there is simply why should other people get to decide for me who determines what a family is?


And while your other point makes sense, it just doesn't play after the offender, in this case Newt, has been outed, and then makes a public apology for his past bad acts.  I mean there does have to be room in our culture, including our politcal culture, for repentance and atonement, doesn't there?

I think when it comes to personal lives of the candidates, it depends on if they take visible positions on how other people should live their lives, then they should be fair game too. If they want to pass policies that restrict other peoples choices or are taking stances that pass judgement on others lives, I think the media not only has the right, but the responsibility to point out these issues. Newt Gingrich went after President Clinton for his missteps pretty hard, but his own aren't fair game? He's signed numerous "family values" pledges this year, so why can't we look at his own track record.

okay, I'll keep trying here:


You can, but to what end?  Other than the glee of revenge, what does it accomplish?  nobody who follows politics doesn't already know about his history, and only those who already can't stand the guy enjoy these stories, so what is achieved?


I know Schaadenfreude is a powerful emotion, but really, enjoying the downfall of others, even if deserved, is hardly a substitute for the serious grilling appropriate to the guy who may win the SC primary and redefine the race for the GOP nomination is so doing.

I generally don't really care about the personal life of a politician, assuming no criminal activity is involved. The problem I have with Newt, and the reason I think the questions about his past are in-bounds (although I don't know that I would have led the debate with that question) is the hypocrisy issue. Newt was at the front of the crowd screaming for President Clinton's head back in the day, and he was also on the lecture circuit talking about "family values" and how the liberal elites have turned this country into Sodom and Gomorrah (sp?). Most liberals aren't out there lecturing the country on what type of morals I should have, so when it turns out someone who is lecturing on that very point is also living a life in violation of those supposed values, it is news.

Liberals don;t lecture?  What planet do you live on?  Of course Liberals lecture -- and do so every bit as much as Conservatives do -- they simply have a different set of lecture topics.


And yes, they lecture about moral values too.  Try suggesting that you don't support gay marriage -- you are automatically a homophobe.  Suggest that you object to President Obama's "fairness" arguments re the economy and taxation, and you are a greedy 1%'er.  I could go on, but you get the point, I hope.


The only difference I see is that when we share the lecturer's perspective, we call it moral education.  When we don't, we just call it a lecture.

You ask for justification about relevancy- it goes to overall honesty. If a candidate (or any other type of leader) says you should be living in a traditional marriage where you obey religious-influenced marriage vows and they aren't doing it themselves makes it seem like they are lying. If they are lying about civil issues, why not politically relevant issues like foreign policy or deficit reduction.

I honestly don't think that there is such a thing as "overall honesty".  To be sure, some people lie all of the time and they can not be trusted for anything, but most people lie ocassionally, and do so especially about those parts of their lives where they feel most insecure and/or ashamed.  That those same people often lash out at those doing the same things is totally human and typical.


None of that excuses Newt, but really, is that what we should be talking about at this moment?  We all know it's not, and that's why he was able to win in the midst of being asked about his own terrible track record as a husband.

I'm fine with the personal lives of politicians and the media types who cover them being examined, but there are many other factors I find more important in my decision making process. With all of the issues available to discuss, including the economy, taxes, Iran, foreign policy, healthcare, etc. why waste the first question and the first 5 minutes on something so tawdry and personal?

This will have to be our last question for today, and it's a good one to end on because it's about us, the voting public.


Newt has a long record of bad personal behavior on the marital front, but that we spend as much time on it as we do is NOT because it's that important relative to the challenges we face.  It's because it's a form of high-brow pornography which we can enjoy while still feeling virtuous.


So who is REALLY guilty of hypocrisy. Newt or those who can't get off this story?  Of course, the answer is "yes", but until we address our own hypocrisies, it will be hard to meaningfully addresss his.

The questions and comments were great, and as always, I look forward to next week!


Have a great weekend,


In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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