Gingrich and the ‘Open Marriage’ Question: How Newt Can Spin Things to His Advantage

Did Newt float the idea of an "open marriage" by his second bride? In this he-said, she-said verbal brawl, whom do you believe?

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Did the Speaker of the House really suggest to his second wife Marianne that they break their conjugal gridlock using a Newt-sharing program? Only two people know for sure: Marianne, who says her former husband did, in the death throes of their marriage, float the idea of opening the union to other trading partners, and Gingrich, who says that’s bunkum, that all their friends from that time will agree with him, and that to even ask him about it in a presidential debate “is as close to despicable as anything [he] can imagine.”

But, honestly, how would these friends even know? Did the Gingriches mention it in their 1999 annual newsletter? “Considered open marriage. Decided against it. Merry Christmas!” Did Gingrich discuss it with buddies at the GOPAC? “Oh man, did my new initiative ever fail to make it through the house…” Can either of them even be relied on to retain an accurate memory of things that were said in as fraught a time as the end of a marriage?

Marianne Gingrich appears to believe that her husband offered to stay married to her if she let him play house with then-congressional aide Callista Bisek, who is now his third wife. If that’s not what he had wanted, then he was either not on message or offering a straw man. Either way, it’s a mistake for Gingrich to act all huffy now about being asked about his ex-wife’s claims, which she is not, after all, making for the first time. You can say a lot of things about your spouse of 18 years, but you can’t pretend her opinion of you is ill-informed.

When asked about the claims in the South Carolina debate, which was happening as Marianne’s interview aired on ABC on Thursday night, candidates Rick Santorum and Ron Paul talked vaguely about forgiveness and slipped in a reference to their own robust marriages, while Mitt Romney declined to weigh in, saying we needed to get back to the real issues. (Hello, Mr. Romney? If we’re thinking of electing a guy who’s going to get all Big Love on us, that might be a bit of a real issue for people. I mean, have you met Jacob Zuma?)

Marianne’s timing, making her appearance right on the eve of the South Carolina primary as her ex-husband was finally gaining some momentum, seems calculated to do the maximum amount of damage, but frankly, if you have an aggrieved ex-spouse, there is no good time for them to show up. The only way to avoid an ugly scene is to cut back on aggrieved spouses.

There’s no getting around the fact that Gingrich has more ex-spouses than anyone else among the frontrunners. Rather than trying to sweep that under the rug, or fulminating jowlily whenever it’s mentioned, perhaps his team should make it part of his platform: proudly promiscuous Newt versus those boring monogamous fellows he’s running against.

MORE: The Caligula Effect: Why Powerful Men Compulsively Cheat

Here are some suggestions for talking points:

Instead of this: He was carrying on an affair for a third of the 18 years of his second marriage, also while trying to impeach President Clinton.
Try this: He’s got quite the bandwidth.

Instead of this: He left both his first and second wives after they were diagnosed with serious illnesses.
Try this: He’s consistent on health care.

Instead of this: He was deceiving at least one woman, possibly two, depending on what he told Callista for six years.
Try this: He’ll stay on message for at least one and a half terms.

Instead of this: He wanted an open marriage, eeew!
Try this: He’s not afraid to try the less obvious option.

Instead of this: He keeps trading up to younger wives.
Try this: He embraces change.

Instead of this: Man, his ex-wife hates him.
Try this: He’s prepared to make unpopular decisions.

Instead of this: He likened Marianne to a Jaguar and Callista to a Chevrolet, then said he wanted a Chevy.
Try this: He prefers American-made.

And finally, instead of this: He’s been married two times too many.
Try this: Look how many people love him!

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