Did Gingrich object to Dobson's effrontery? Au contraire. In fact, Dobson framed his on-air question as a repetition of something he had previously discussed with Gingrich: "I asked you a pretty bold question. And I appreciate the fact that you didn't seem offended by it. But I asked you if the rumors were true that you were in an affair with a woman obviously who wasn't your wife at the same time that Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were having their escapade."
Gingrich took no offense at Dobson's repeating their conversation on the air. He clearly expected Dobson to raise the topic. He explained that the subject was a "very painful topic, and I confess that to you directly." And his confession continued: "Well, the fact is that the honest answer is yes."
Gingrich then went on to distinguish his personal behavior from Bill Clinton's, which he described as lying under oath. But Dobson was uninterested in this residue of a distinction between public and private behavior. He persevered: "Well, you answered that question with regard to Bill Clinton instead of referring to yourself. May I ask you to address it personally? You know, I believe you to be a professing Christian, and you and I have prayed together, but when I heard you talk about this dark side of your life and when we were in Washington, you spoke of it with a great deal of pain and anguish, but you didn't mention repentance. Do you understand that word, repentance?"
Gingrich made it clear he did: "Absolutely ... I believe deeply that people fall short and that people have to recognize that they have to turn to God for forgiveness and to seek mercy ... I also believe that there are things in my own life that I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed about and sought God's forgiveness."
So, Dobson believes he and his listeners need to know whether presidential candidates have been faithful in their marriages. And he wants to give candidates a chance publicly to confess their sins by being their official confessor. Gingrich, for his part, thinks it prudent to accommodate Dobson. He chooses to acknowledge behavior that was confirmed by his subsequent divorce and marriage to the woman in question. It must have occurred to Gingrich that in another era an intelligent and proud man like him would not have dignified such a question with an answer, let alone consent ahead of time to have it asked.
We live in an age when nothing is to be kept private, nothing is to be borne in silence, no one is too proud to stoop to conquer. It's hard to blame Gingrich, a politician, for adjusting to this situation. And it's not even clear how much one should blame Dobson for his prying no one has to submit to it if he doesn't want to, and millions of Americans look up to him as a civic and moral leader. I respect much of what he has done, including his efforts to counsel families and defend the right to life.
This is not to say that candidates' private lives need be entirely irrelevant to our view of them as public figures. Gingrich's marriages and divorces are matters of public record, and voters can pass judgment on that. Gingrich can, furthermore, publicly express remorse about his past behavior if he wishes. But surely there is something unseemly in the way this Dobson-Gingrich transaction took place. Conspicuously public pleas for absolution seem insincere, whatever the motives of either participant.
The purpose of the Gingrich interview was to clear away some of the underbrush for Gingrich's potential presidential candidacy and possibly also for Dobson's support of it. Dobson liked Gingrich's confession. He concluded, "Well, I appreciate your allowing us to delve into that. Obviously the reason that I ask is that you are a national leader, despite the fact that you're not in public office at this time. And many of the concepts and ideas that you've expressed, last time and today, are things that I agree with, and I think it's really important and will be for many of our listeners to know your responses to that point of disappointment back there someplace. And I really appreciate your willingness to do so." And not just Dobson. The week the interview aired, evangelist Jerry Falwell invited Gingrich to be the graduation speaker later this spring at Liberty University.
Mission accomplished for Gingrich, Dobson and Falwell. "That point of disappointment back there someplace" has been dealt with. Am I the only one now even more disappointed with the outcome?