Newt Gingrich loses his cool over "open marriage" accusations

The Republican candidate may have shot himself in the foot with last night's tirade.

At last night's Republican debate in South Carolina, all eyes were on Newt Gingrich as he erupted over claims he wanted an "open marriage" with his second wife and lashed out at what he described as "the destructive, vicious, negative nature" of the media.

CNN's John King opened the debate by asking Gingrich if the allegations made by former wife Marianne were true. The stunned presidential hopeful was prompted by King who asked: ""Would you like to take some time to respond to that?" A red-faced Gingrich replied: "No, but I will," earning cheers and a standing ovation from the audience.

Newt's tirade continued as he blamed the media for making it "harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office" and said he was appalled that CNN began a presidential debate on that topic.

Unsurprisingly Gingrich vehemently denied the claims, stating: "To take an ex-wife and two days before the primary [raise] a significant question in the presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine ... I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and open the debate."

However, a combative Gingrich wasn't done yet. After King pointed out that it was ABC, not CNN, who aired his ex wife's claims of an "open marriage", Gingrich told him not to blame anybody else and stressed his disgust that the debate was opened with such a personal question. He then blamed the "elite" media for protecting President Obama.

However, despite earning a standing ovation from the South Carolina crowd when he angrily rebuked King, it appears Newt doth protest too much and his outburst may turn out to be a PR disaster, giving greater prominence to the allegations and therefore alienating the evangelical Christians who dominate South Carolina.

Fellow nominee Rick Santorum expressed worry over Gingrich's temper, saying that "these are issues of character to consider" and Ron Paul, who was more of a spectator than a participant in last night's debate, made a blatant attempt to highlight his own personal values, piously expressing his pride over his wife of 54 years.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney, with whom Gingrich is almost neck-and-neck in the polls, earned applause by taking the high road and saying: "Let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say." However, he might have regretted moving off the subject of Newt's escapades so quickly as he was faced with yet more questions about his tax returns. A defensive Romney fumbled through his answer, vaguely promising to release the past year's tax return in April.

Three-times-married Gingrich is well-known for his infidelities, causing many staunch conservatives to question his moral fibre. He famously called for the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton following his Oval Office dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, at the same time that he himself was having an affair.

Gingrich's explosive temper was also an issue when he served as House speaker. He was blamed for two partial government shutdowns during the battle over the budget, which made him seem reckless and hot-headed. A wide-spread editorial cartoon depicted him as having a rather embarrassing temper tantrum.

Despite a storming performance at Monday night's debate, by unleashing such a tirade last night Gingrich may have inadvertently shot himself in the foot.

 

Getty
Show Hide image

Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times