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In 1998, Republicans cared about morality in the White House. Former President Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades led to a scandal and near impeachment, and Republicans were quick to argue that the morality of our leaders was essential.

Newt Gingrich, in his first act as Speaker of the House, led the charge to impeach Clinton, until ethics charges made him so unpopular he resigned from Congress in disgrace, and until his own infidelity to his wife became common knowledge.

Now, in his second act as a GOP presidential contender, he is the surging conservative alternative to the formerly inevitable Mitt Romney.

The arguments offered by Gingrich’s conservative defenders depend on a common view of moral failings in public figures — that personal moral flaws are personal, and that we should make our political decisions without taking them into account. All that matters, the thinking goes, are the public acts of public figures. Private lives should be off-limits.

But morality still matters, even now.

Certainly, it’s worth wondering if the best way to restore trust in government is to entrust it to someone who has twice betrayed the most important trust in his life, and whose first romance with power similarly ended with bitterness, recriminations and heartbreak. Gingrich’s history suggests trusting him with power is foolhardy.

But more importantly, Gingrich’s failings matter because we still have the obligation to ask our leaders to live up to a certain standard. It’s not a religious standard, exactly, and it never really was. It’s more of a symbolic standard: We ask our leaders to act as we like to believe we would if we were given a position of power. We expect them to be people we can believe in.

That symbolism still matters. It’s why sporting events begin with the National Anthem. It’s why Congress issues official proclamations. It’s why we have federal holidays and presidential-appointed Medals of Freedom and why children still write letters to presidents.

Something about public office should still inspire the best of us to serve. Public office is more than just a job — it’s about trust.

In a larger sense, Gingrich’s failures are also our own. If there was one word that could have saved us from this predicament — from the deficits that choke our future and from the coarsening of our manners and our public discourse — it is restraint. Restraint could have stopped us before we spent more than we could possibly afford. Restraint could have counseled against the worst of our rhetorical savagery against each other. Restraint seems foreign to  Gingrich.

His dedication to his own wants mirrors our unwillingness to live within our means. His grandiose vision of self echoes those of our new national icons: the celebrities and reality television stars who believe wholeheartedly in their own cosmic significance. His complete lack of shame is painfully familiar to America, as we know it.

Perhaps this is the true end of representative democracy: We get the leaders who are most like us, for all our flaws.


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