Unless I am reading the tea leaves wrong, we have not seen the end of the stories probing whether the once Honorable Newt Gingrich has adequately repented for his moral failures as a husband. The theme that keeps driving this subject into the headlines is, of course, his ongoing attempts to court the votes of evangelicals and other moral conservatives (with traditional Catholics being a crucial piece of that puzzle). This update from The New York Times has an archetypal Iowa lede:
DES MOINES -- Running for president is serious business, Newt Gingrich sometimes says on the stump, so voters should feel free to ask anything -- to leaf through his life as if it were an open book.
And boy, are there a lot of potentially problematic chapters, in both the public and private spheres, that Mr. Gingrich’s Republican rivals assumed would eventually sour voters on him and halt his momentum.
The campaign team's motto, readers are told, is "let it all hang out" -- which is a scary prospect.
Considering the make-up of the modern Republican Party, the heavy blows in this battle are linked to religion. Gingrich is, of course, a mainline Protestant turned evangelical turned Catholic. When it comes to adultery and two divorces, there are plenty of doctrinal angles to discuss.
The other candidates are hinting at all of this, but -- here's the hook for this story -- Gingrich has blunted their arguments, somewhat, by raising these issues himself. He has, in other words, played the repentance card. He is also making himself shockingly available for media interviews, even though he knows the questions that (and perhaps his third wife) are going to keep hearing.
Here is how that sounds in the Times:
Many people inside and outside the Gingrich campaign assumed early on that he would be most vulnerable because of his marital history, including an admission of infidelity. ...
Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly said that he is not perfect and that there are episodes he regrets. “There are periods of my life I’ve had to seek forgiveness and reconcile with God for,” he said last month in an interview in New Hampshire. “But if you look at who I am today, I think I can withstand scrutiny as well as anyone else in the field.”
His candor seems to be working even with social conservatives, who seem more interested in choosing a hard-edged opponent to face President Obama. Recent polls of Iowa voters showed Mr. Gingrich with the largest share of support from Christian evangelicals.
Once again, what fascinates me about this story is the terrain that it does not cover.
Yes, once again, these issues are framed as if the essential issues are political in nature. At some point, as I have suggested before, someone needs to talk to Catholics who are on the fence when it comes to Gingrich's candidacy. At some point, is someone going to ask evangelical leaders, on the record, to describe what they are thinking when they compare, oh, Gingrich the recently minted Catholic with Mitt Romney the steady Mormon?
In other words, journalists keep writing stories that, in effect, say: "Wow, that Gingrich fellow sure has lived a complicated moral life." At some point, someone may want to dig just a bit deeper, both in interviews with the candidate and his follower.
As journalism, would it really be better to continue with the "wink, wink" coverage, as opposed to asking the candidate and his supporters honest questions about how his beliefs and actions have changed and how that fits into his political stands on key issues that matter to conservative voters?