Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Not Newt

I read a good number of books. Arguably the most important I've read in the last several years was After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. I cannot summarize it here, but the main thrust of the book is a critique of the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment, which attempted to derive rules for good living based on reason, with a suggestion that we return to the ethical approach of Aristotle, that is, one which emphasizes virtues.

I often find myself returning to MacIntyre's approach. For instance, those of us who follow politics might attempt to come up with rules--term limits, limits on the money a campaign can spend, etc.---to try to cajole Congress into better serving the interests of the people. There is some value in this approach, but our best laid plans falter if those we seek to restrain circumvent our rules. In short, and as per MacIntyre, the best way to ensure our government is honorable and virtuous is to elect men who are honorable and virtuous.

With this in mind, we can examine Newt Gingrich, and the recent interview of one of his ex-wives. Now, many of the Republicans are insisting that this is a past transgression, and therefore irrelevant in determining whether or not Gingrich is qualified to be president. Yet while the story is an old one, it's hardly immaterial in helping qualify the character of the prospective nominee, for two reasons.

First, it's imperative that a candidate be virtuous if we wish him to govern well. So much of the focus of the campaign revolves around the debates--whether candidate A handled a tough question well, etc. Yet possessing the skill to speak extemporaneously does not necessarily make a good president. Coolidge was famously laconic, but that didn't prevent him from being an exceptional president. Similarly, Obama's ability to charm the masses has failed to translate into executive ability. Moreover, one may say all of the right things, but then govern differently when one obtains power. Sniffing out the sophists ought to be the most important task of the political process.

Second, Gingrich's adultery represents more than a lapse: it exposes a pattern of vice. There is a grave difference between sin and living in a state of it. Gingrich did not make a solitary mistake: he chose a degenerate lifestyle for a prolonged period of time. And he did so while the Republican Congress was hounding the President for the exact same behavior. As Evelyn Waugh has Julia express it in Brideshead Revisited, Gingrich was:

Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing curtains drawn on sin, bathing in it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it around, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful.

As Aristotle understood, habituation with sin mars one's character. Just as a man who practices acts of courage becomes courageous, a man who practices infidelity becomes unfaithful. Virtue can, in time, be restored, but without further information, voters should be suspicious of Gingrich's virtue. He may be as unfaithful to his constituents as he was to his wife. We cannot hazard a test.

Gingrich claims to have repented. This is between him and his God. I do not wish him ill, nor do I begrudge him the forgiveness and grace of the Almighty. But while he may still play a role in the conservative movement, conservatives cannot, in good conscience, support someone who has reveals himself to be so lacking in virtue for such an important office. Were he an honorable man, Gingrich would have stepped aside. There is still time to practice honor, by behaving honorably this time.

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