Morality is an interesting concept. What is morality? Well, the definition is "conformity to the rules of right or virtuous conduct", but who decides what "right" or "virtuous" conduct is? Historically, that determination has been made by society at large, the majority opinion. Morals, in the societal sense, begin with the community and spread throughout the society. Sometimes certain morals are widely adopted, such as the broad morality regarding extra-marital affairs. Other times, morality is more narrowly-defined, such as when a particular town bans strip clubs or pornography.
Personal morality is an entirely different subject as well. Personal morality is something that is different in each of us. For instance, some women consider it cheating if their husbands look at pornography of any kind, while other women enjoy an open, swinger lifestyle with their husbands, having sex with multiple partners and finding nothing wrong with it.
There has been a lot of talk about morality lately, as is often the case whenever a presidential race begins to heat up, mostly because there's always at least one guy in any field of politicians who has some moral skeletons in their closet that inevitably come tumbling out when the spotlight and microscope of media scrutiny turns to them. This Saturday, Herman Cain dropped out of the presidential race after a number of scandals regarding alleged impropriety on his part culminated with a revelation by Ginger White that she and Cain had carried on a 13-year sexual affair. The public reaction to Cain's behavior was strongly negative and many of his big campaign donors decided to pull their support. Cain's poll numbers had taken a sharp decline, dropping him from first place down to the bottom of the pack. Faced with all of this, Cain made the decision to stop subjecting his wife and family to further media scrutiny, late night jokes and public criticism and leave the race.
In this case, the "personal morality" that Cain had claimed to possess, along with the "social morality" of his alleged actions both demanded that he couldn't continue to deserve popular support for his candidacy, he had proven himself to be a hypocrite.
Ironically, incredibly, incredibly ironically, all of Cain's support seems to have now gone to Newt Gingrich. Newt is famous for leaving each of his ex-wives for his next wife, carrying on a slew of extra-marital affairs and even notoriously leaving his second wife while she was hospitalized with cancer in order to be with his former campaign staffer. Furthermore, Gingrich's affair with that staffer was brought to light as he was leading the Republican witch hunt to have former president Bill Clinton impeached for having a sexual tryst with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich was decrying the lack of morality in the president for having extra-marital relations with an intern while he himself was having extra-marital relations with a staff member. This is, of course, the very definition of hypocrisy - "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess."
The fact that Cain's supporters dumped him for allegations of immoral conduct, only to throw their support behind Gingrich - who has a well documented history of immoral conduct - is also hypocritical. Jon Stewart made a great joke about it on The Daily Show last week, "Apparently, Newt Gingrich is the candidate for people who like Herman Cain, but think he's too monogamous."
There's a reason why Gingrich is getting this level of support despite the fact that he's guilty of equal and worse offenses than Cain - Gingrich's personal morality is almost non-existent.
Society can say that a man who cheats on his wife is a "bad guy" or a "bad husband", but if the wife says that she doesn't care if her husband cheats on her, does that same scrutiny apply? Society can say that a guy who leaves one wife for the next is a cad and an immoral man, but if the second wife doesn't mind, does that change things? Gingrich is the only speaker of the house to be fined for ethics violations while holding his seat and he was forced to step down over the scandals surrounding his financial indiscretions and abuse of his position, however he is now currently the latest beneficiary of the "Anyone but Romney" surge among the GOP base. Does this mean that the GOP base held Cain to a higher moral standard than Gingrich? Or are they just that opposed to Romney winning the nomination, that they will directly and immediately contradict their own self-proclaimed morality? I mean, Gingrich certainly professes to have a superior moral standard. He lead the charge against Clinton's bad behavior with Lewinsky, he is against gay marriage and has written books about forging "contracts" with the family while cheating on all of his wives and abandoning his own family and he proclaimed that anyone involved with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac scandal should be arrested before it was revealed that he, himself, had accepted millions of dollars from those companies to lobby his fellow Republicans to allow the very same bad behavior that brought those companies down during the mortgage-backed securities scandal. He is the poster child for the hypocritical "do as I say, not as I do" skewed morality that has exemplified the worst of the Republican party over the last 2 decades.
And he's leading the polls for the GOP nomination.
Is the Republican base just a bunch of hypocrites? Do they only apply strict moral standards where it suits them and look the other way when it doesn't? Was Cain's unforgivable sin really the fact that he had an alleged extramarital affair and multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior, or was it just a convenient excuse to get rid of a guy who was showing himself to be more and more weak and unprepared for the office he was seeking with every interview? Republicans claim to hold the "sanctity of marriage" sacred above all else. They justify this as their reason for opposing gay marriage. However, they are now supporting a man who cheated on all of his ex-wives and, according to some people who knew Gingrich, has cheated on his current wife as well. What disrespects the "sanctity" of marriage more than a blatant disregard for the oath of "honoring" one's spouse that they swear during it? Certainly having an affair and leaving your wife while she's sick with cancer in the hospital dishonors her. Likewise, turning your back on the family you had with that wife and refusing to pay alimony or child support also dishonors, not just your wife, but your family as well. Is there anything that violates this exalted "sanctity" more than a blatant and unapologetic disregard for the commitment that was made?
Or, is the difference the fact that Gingrich never apologizes for his misdeeds? He never accepts personal responsibility for the consequences of his actions. He blames everyone but himself for his failed marriages, he blames everyone but himself for his unethical behavior while serving as speaker of the house and he blames everyone but himself for the various and numerous shady dealings he's been involved with since leaving office. Is the fact that Gingrich is an unapologetic, hypocritical man without morals, with a wife who is content to smile in complicity right by his side the whole time the reason why society - specifically the Republican voter base - isn't holding him to the same level of scrutiny they just subjected Herman Cain to?
Suppose a married friend or co-worker invites you to a strip club, do you wonder if that's ok with his wife first? Or, do you just assume that he wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't ok and if it's not, then that's going to be his mess to clean up, not yours? If you see a married man or woman carrying on with someone who isn't their spouse, do you speak up or do you just decide to stay out of it? Do you know when you see a married man or woman engaging in behavior that would be considered "cheating", if that person is perhaps in an open marriage and that their behavior is acceptable to their spouse? That's the problem with painting "societal" morality on everyone with a broad brush, not everyone has the same "personal" morality.
I know women right now who would divorce their husbands if they went to a strip club and I know women who enjoy going to strip clubs with their husbands. I know women who would leave their husband in a second if he so much as flirted too heavily with another woman and I know women who enjoy swinging and engaging in group sex with their husbands and other individuals and couples. The "personal" morality of every individual is as varied and diverse as those people are themselves.
When Bill Clinton's affair was made public, Hillary made the choice to stand by her man and has stayed with him ever since. Clinton's indiscretion was relatively minor in comparison to other affairs - including the one Gingrich was carrying on while pressing for Clinton's impeachment - all he did was get a BJ. I say "all he did" because some people would consider oral sex a lesser degree of offense than vaginal sex. Just as others might consider flirting and non-physical fantasizing to be a less severe offense to actually engaging in a physical relationship. In contrast, when John Edwards was exposed for cheating on his wife with Rielle Hunter and fathering a child with her, his wife, Elizabeth, filed for divorce. Clearly, Edward's actions were so far beyond the realm of forgivable transgression for Elizabeth that she couldn't continue to be married to him. In both cases, the husband had inappropriate sexual contact with another woman. However, because Hillary forgave Bill and stayed in the marriage and because many people viewed what Clinton did to be a "lesser offense" to having full-blown intercourse, Bill Clinton was able to weather the storm of his scandal and ended up leaving office as one of the most popular presidents in modern history. Because Elizabeth Edwards did not forgive John, and because the nature of his offense was so much more severe, his reputation never recovered and he was forced to leave politics altogether.
So, does ones "personal" morality affect the degree to which society applies its broader moral standards?
Is the fact that Gingrich is defiant and unapologetic for his immoral behavior and supported the whole way by his current wife the reason he is not held to the same scrutiny that Herman Cain was? Was the fact that Cain made matter-of-fact proclamations about his innocence, only to have more and more evidence to the contrary emerge, combined with the fact that his wife did not know the woman who Cain was carrying on his alleged affair with, even though she was only supposed to be a "friend" the reason the public soured on him? If Cain's wife had said "Yes, I know Ginger White and I know about what happened between her and my husband and I have forgiven him" would Cain still be in the race? What's more, would he still be leading in the polls if he had his wife's public support and forgiveness?
I think the influence of one's personal morality has a lot to do with how strictly society enforces it's generalized morality. Society will condemn a philandering husband if his wife divorces him, but if she forgives him, then eventually they will too, even if they wouldn't show the same tolerance if it was their husband or wife cheating on them. Society imposes it's moral rules, but they will allow exceptions when a suitable argument is made to the contrary.
So, is the GOP base giving Gingrich a pass on being a man with a completely broken moral compass, just because his bad behavior is ok with him and his wife?