He's No Damn Good

We live in cynical times.  Ours is an epoch in which, more often than not, values are trumped by political expediency.  It is a time when self-righteousness masquerades as morality.  Those who claim -- and truly believe -- that theirs is a profoundly moral political movement see that movement's standards repeatedly compromised by an unseemly pragmatism.  Perhaps the compromises represent merely a balancing of values -- the creation of a hierarchy of principle.  Whatever its purpose, its effect is a surrender of moral authority.  It represents that which conservatives have consistently condemned: a situational ethic, an unattractive moral relativism.

Politics has become the enemy of principle, and its practitioners have, for electoral advantage, set aside their more basic values.  But political philosophy is a subset of ethics -- man's relationship to man -- and it is -- and must be -- profoundly grounded in principle.  It must be a uniquely moral project.

America is at a time of unprecedented historical extremity.  Its institutions are deliberately undermined by a national administration that neither understands nor respects the principles on which the nation was founded.  It is an administration at war with the very idea of America and determined to transform her from the beacon of freedom envisioned by the Founders to the dull gray dusk of dependency managed by inquisitors whose authoritarian project is masked by a perversion of the ideal of equality.

Ours is a nation defined by the ideas that were its genesis, not by common ethnicity.  It is the culmination of the Enlightenment's transformative intellectual project.  Conservatives see their nation and its defining idea slipping away and perceive it to be in danger of falling into a decadence wrought by a corrosive leftist project that saps its citizens' energy and leaves them morally rudderless, helpless before those who would control every aspect of their lives.  Freedom itself hangs in the balance.  Conservatives know that this election is that critical moment that will define America for generations to come.  They know that once the die of dependency is cast, there is no going back until the nation descends into the moral, intellectual, and financial bankruptcy that is the inevitable result.  They fear the chaos that will ensue when those who receive finally triumph over those who produce.

Conservatives know that this must be their time, that they are called as never before.  They know that this generation is the one Ronald Reagan prefigured when he said freedom is always only one generation away from extinction.  They are ready to take the field and have been crying out for one who will lead them into this defining battle.  They yearn for a champion with the ideas, the depth, the dynamism, the gravitas, and the personal rectitude to sweep back the leftist tide and walk the nation back from the precipice of authoritarianism.  But the field of choices is barren.

Conservatives know that Romney is not the one.  He says the things he knows conservatives want to hear, but conservatives suspect he doesn't really mean them, and no one believes he will make the bold moves necessary to bring us back from the brink and dismantle the architecture of a sixty-year liberal zeitgeist.

Santorum, for all of his experience, seems strangely less than the sum of his parts.  It is not his record, his character, or his accomplishments that trouble so much as an inchoate sense that he is simply not up to the job.  Fairly or not, he appears to be a lightweight more suited for lesser office than for the Big Job. 

And then there is Gingrich.

There is an uneasy sense that he is not reliable, that he is too given to running off on odd tangents -- like his strange couch-dance with Nancy Pelosi and his endorsement of cap and trade, like his support for massive expansions of entitlement programs, like his odd analogies and his hypocrisy.  He has committed himself to three wives and to three different religious denominations. 

But it is his lack of character that is most troubling.

Let me start by saying that for some years, now, I have argued that conservatives must define conservatism as a political philosophy and not as a way of life.  Politics is, after all, about government -- its role and its purpose.  A political philosophy grounded in the concept of individual liberty cannot properly argue for a governmental role in the enforcement of social orthodoxy.  So I do not cast my criticism of Gingrich in political terms.

But social conservatism -- as opposed to political conservatism -- is a way of life.  It defines our standards and our moral code and our sense of the fitness of things.  It guides our social interactions and informs our personal relationships and those we choose to count among our friends.  It cannot be defined politically, but it must define who we think is fit to lead us.  The Founders did not incorporate their social views into the Constitution because they knew it was a document that defined government, not society.  But their social views informed their approach to one another and to the conduct of their political lives.

Newt Gingrich is a serial adulterer.  That is a fact.  While he has denied that he asked his second wife for an "open marriage" arrangement, he has not denied that he carried on an affair with his second wife while married to his first and with his third wife while married to the second.

When Bill Clinton was discovered to have sullied his office by the indulgence of his appetites, his enablers argued that it was "just sex" and not otherwise important.  After all, they said, everyone lies about sex.  Conservatives argued that that was not morally acceptable and condemned Clinton's moral failures.  They were right.

It was not then and is not now about sexual moral failure.  It is not about sex at all, and it is not about adultery.  It is about cheating.  It is about lying.  It is about integrity.

If we do not demand integrity of our candidates, what does that say about us?  What does it say about us that we now endorse the idea that the end of defeating Barak Obama justifies the means of supporting one whose character falls below our norms of respectability?

One of the greatest men I have ever known was a rancher in New Mexico named Charlie Lee.  Some years ago, he and I met several times with Gary Johnson, then-governor of New Mexico, on issues of some moment for the state.  Governor Johnson assured us of his support and pledged that he would take the lead in the effort.  He didn't.

Sometime later, Johnson announced his intent to run for re-election.  I called Charlie that night and said that I assumed he would be supporting the re-election effort.

"Hell, no!" he said.

When I asked why not, Charlie said, "Well, he lied to us, John."

"He's a politician," I snickered. "I guess we kind of expect that."

"No," he said with emphasis.  "That's not right.  And it isn't an excuse.

"Never forget this, John.  A man who'd lie to you would steal your money.  He's no damn good.  I won't support him."

That was Charlie.  It did not matter how much he agreed with a candidate on policy.  For him, integrity was the price of admission.  Applying a lesser standard now would be the betrayal of a sacred bond.  I would no longer deserve Charlie's friendship or his trust.

And that's why I can't support Newt Gingrich, no matter how much I may agree with him.

He's no damn good.