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Newt Gingrich: Why hasn't his ethically-challenged past caught up with him?

Walter RodgersThe Christian Science Monitor

Newt Gingrich slid rather quickly in public opinion polls, but his earlier ride to the top revealed a monumental miscalculation on the part of some Republicans. Among other things, it showed a serious underestimation of people’s thirst for integrity and public decency in presidential hopefuls.

Perhaps those who swarmed behind the former House speaker are now rediscovering that important factor – helped on by a barrage of negative ads and leaflets unleashed by his rivals, detractors, and “super political action committees,” known as super PACs. The attacks try to paint Mr. Gingrich’s public and private behavior as either hypocritical or lacking in ethics and morals.

The great contrast here is loathing a president of high moral standing for his policies while supporting a conservative with a history of immorality.

Gingrich is the only speaker of the House of Representatives to ever have been disciplined for ethics violations – for which he paid a whopping $300,000. Whatever happened to the public decency prerequisite for presidential nominees?

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was denied the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, because among other things, he was a divorced man. That was a moral yardstick at the time – irrelevant, yes, but at least a sign of moral interest on the part of voters.

Politicians can survive much but not public ridicule. I recently read with amusement that Gingrich has taken his fourth “no-adultery pledge” after having cheated on two of his three wives. Drew Sheneman, cartoonist of the Newark Star-Ledger, wryly observed that at least “he always married his mistresses afterward,” giving a new twist to family values.

A group of Christians in Iowa is directly attacking infidelity as one reason for conservatives to stay away from Gingrich. It is not an inconsequential matter – as Herman Cain, once a GOP front-runner, discovered after being accused of sexual harassment and having an adulterous affair. The allegations forced him from the race.

Gingrich flew to the top of the polls as part of the “anybody but Mitt” phenomenon. But his rise also was a barometer of the intensity of Republican hatred for President Obama’s policies – which conservatives see as socialist.

GOP media strategist Rick Wilson recently conducted a focus group in which Republicans were asked if they would rather kill the president’s health care law or kill Osama bin Laden. The GOP focus group said they preferred to “kill Obamacare.”

The Affordable Care Act provides health coverage for millions more Americans, and yet the litmus test for too many Republicans seems to be simply: “Is our guy mean enough to beat Obama?”

Beyond that, it is not unusual to hear a few people in the anti-Obama crowd refer to the nation’s first African-American president in highly insulting personal ways, including racist ones.

And yet there isn’t the slightest hint of personal scandal about Mr. Obama. He’s an exemplary husband and father, and a moral man. Indeed, the president has been the personification of decency, dignity, and unshakable civility.

Most disappointing is that Republicans seem inclined to reject their own “straight arrows” like former governors Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney. Mr. Romney is a moral Mormon family man who can’t seem to generate more than an average 25 percent interest from likely Republican voters. Mr. Huntsman barely registers at 2 percent. Since when does hatred of someone trump a sense of decency among Americans?

Most Americans don’t like their presidents mean-spirited. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon labored mightily to conceal their dark sides. But some conservatives are flaunting theirs. When I ask a few Republican friends why they reject Mitt Romney, you hear them unjustly answer: “He’s not a real Christian, you know. Mormons are a cult.”

Actually, it’s the Republican Party that is becoming a cult, according to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who believes the GOP is in trouble because it is not winning new voters.

“There are no more people calling themselves Republican through this whole process even though they had a landslide election in 2010,” Mr. Greenburg said at a recent Monitor breakfast. “It has become a cult.”

What makes it easier for those who would take down Gingrich is his long and public history of ethical failings. Years after he left the White House, the late President Gerald Ford privately shared with me his deep personal antipathy for Gingrich because of what Ford saw as a ruthlessness of character.

Another former House GOP colleague of Gingrich is just as blunt. Former New York Republican Congressman Guy Molinari, who worked with Gingrich in the 1990s, warns he can’t be trusted.

So where do Republicans who value personal decency go? For now they might just bide their time remembering that at this point four years ago, polls had Rudy Giuliani as the GOP front-runner.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for The Christian Science Monitor. His opinions are his own.