"By definition, if you run for president, anything is on the table. Ask Grover Cleveland. Ask Andrew Jackson. Anything is on the table. I accept that, but I don't have to participate in the conversation."
That was Newt Gingrich, last May, when I asked him about whether intrusion into candidates' personal lives had gone too far. At the time, Gingrich's biggest headache was his Tiffany shopping habit, but Gingrich obviously had issues of sexual misconduct on his mind as well: Cleveland was assailed for allegedly having an out-of-wedlock child, Jackson for a possibly bigamous marriage.
And I thought Gingrich had it about right: When you run for president, you open yourself to the kind of searching scrutiny that a finger-pointing, voice-raised Gingrich condemned at Thursday night's debate.
"I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," Gingrich told CNN's John King.
Gingrich, denouncing the reports from his second ex-wife as "trash" and "false," continued. "Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things," he said, to wild cheering from the audience. And then, to even wilder cheering, the inevitable liberal media attack. "I am tired," Gingrich proclaimed, "of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
Let's dispense, first, with Gingrich's bias point: It plays great, but it's bogus. The "elite media" love a juicy story, all the better if it's captured on camera, and its pursuit of such tales knows no partisan bounds. To those who complain about liberal media bias, think back to the crazed scrum of reporters thronging then-candidate Bill Clinton when the Gennifer Flowers story first emerged -- on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.
This gets to the fundamental question of the relevance of politicians' personal lives. If you run for president, everything, as Gingrich said, is on the table, but should it be?
It's unfortunate that the story broke so close to a crucial primary. I might not have led with the topic, as CNN did, but it also could not be avoided. King simply asked Gingrich if he wanted to address that particular elephant. Gingrich's retort was so effective he ought to be sending King a thank-you candygram.
Gingrich's past private conduct may not matter to some voters, either because they do not consider it relevant to his future job performance or because they accept that he has changed for the better.
Others may consider it disqualifying -- or, if not disqualifying, disturbing. You don't have to be an evangelical voter to listen to Marianne Gingrich describe how her husband asked for a divorce over the telephone to cringe about such callous self-absorption.
We have learned that character matters in politicians, in presidents most of all. And character reveals itself in a politician's personal life. Gingrich's reckless lack of discipline, his grandiose sense of entitlement ("He said 'Yes, but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn't care what I do,' " Marianne Gingrich recalled her then-husband saying of his affair) -- these are traits that straddle the boundary between personal and political.
Which is why, as Gingrich said, everything is on the table. That his is so crowded with unappetizing morsels is his doing, not the fault of those who report on them.