As I write this Newt Gingrich is surging in the polls in South Carolina.
Yesterday the country watched or read about his ex-wife Marianne's railings both against her ex-husband's treatment of her. After 18 years of marriage he suddenly called her and said he wanted an "open marriage" so he could pursue his affair with then congressional aide Callista Bisek, now his third wife. Further, Marianne Gingrich claims, Newt was a hypocrite: He had no qualms giving speeches on the merits of family values while seeking a rather less conventional situation for himself.
How have the South Carolina voters reacted? Well, they appear to support Newt Gingrich who called the interview "trash" and obvious "despicable" exploitation on the part of ABC and the rest of the media to air it two days before a primary. His most touching and resonant line, to my thinking, is "Every person in here knows personal pain... "
Well, he is right.
The end result of this is not that the world feels sorry for Marianne Gingrich -- because her story, unfortunately, is familiar. Men leave women for younger women all the time. But because she tried to attack Newt at an obviously vulnerable and crucial moment for him the tactic has backfired. The world -- or the world in South Carolina -- pities him. They understand his upset and angry words. I repeat: "Every person in here knows personal pain... " Marianne Gingrich just gave him the best sound bite of his campaign.
I knew this would happen the moment I read about her tell-all because the biggest regret of my life is ever talking about my marriage and my divorce in print. I did so because, at the time, I was still at the end of my mental rope after an exhaustively acrimonious divorce. A British newspaper had offered me a lot of money at the exact moment I was terrified about money -- that the ex hadn't and wouldn't pay a court-ordered monthly payment -- and in a thoughtless panic, I bashed out an article I would forever wish I could take back. The moment the copy left my printer I was in mental turmoil, for myself, for my children and actually for the ex-husband and his nice girlfriend. I didn't want to do this. And it was too late. I still have nightmares about it.
The fallout from the piece has been very simple. Suddenly where mutual friends had tried to be -- well mutual -- they were all his. The ex-husband had won the publicity battle. It didn't matter that in the article I took a lot of the blame for the marriage not working, that I was nice about him -- and his girlfriend, for whom he had left me. The fact of the matter was as one very old friend put it: "We don't want to know. We don't want to know that he was paying or not paying, we don't want to know about your marriage or your divorce, period."
At first I was a little shell-shocked by this. Would my friends really not care if I found myself in a homeless shelter with the kids as a result of the stress, the financial struggles, illness brought on by what had happened? Then I remembered a close friend -- who did care, actually -- saying remember "When people ask you, 'How are you?' don't ever tell them the truth because 90 percent do not care, and the other 10 percent hope you aren't doing so well."
Recently I re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald's last novel, Tender Is the Night, which is the story of a failed marriage: of how one person destroys the other. In many ways it is the ultimate guide to divorce because it shows how one of the parties, Dr. Dick Diver who starts out so promisingly is left broken and dissipated, forgotten, while Nicole his rich wife, at first mentally broken, gets stronger, goes on and survives.
Fitzgerald took nine years to write the book and it is, like so many of his works, autobiographical. The demons faced by Dick Diver are Fitzgerald's. Drink, dissipation, trying to keep up with a rich crowd, trying to live with a mentally ill wife. What was the upshot? Tender Is the Night met with a mixed reaction by the critics and two years later Fitzgerald died, aged 44, of a heart attack.
I have wondered over and over: Was it worth it for Fitzgerald? Was it worth it to take nine years wrestling with so personal a story, have it bomb and then die?
Neither I nor, I suspect, Marianne Gingrich would claim to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the point is the same really. Where does telling the nitty gritty details of your personal turmoil with a man who has let you down get you, except into a painful, spot where no one really empathizes with you and you are left roiling in the pain? Newt Gingrich said it right: "Every person in here has felt personal pain." In other words, he is saying: "We know what happened. We understand. Move on." That's what the world does -- and is doing in South Carolina. F. Scott Fitzgerald, being, well, F. Scott Fitzgerald, said it better.
"You've made a failure of your life and you want to blame it on me," Nicole Diver says to the husband who once saved her and now she is throwing off. He does not answer and with a neat precision a few sentences later Fitzgerald writes: "The case was finished."
Vicky Ward is a contributing editor to "Vanity Fair" magazine.
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