A delightfully useful and versatile term has been floating around a lot lately: “hot mess.” Usually it refers to a person, often (but not always) a woman, whose behavior is exceedingly self-destructive but who remains exceedingly compelling nonetheless. (Type “hot mess” into Google and names such as Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen make a strong showing.)
On the surface, hot mess is derogatory, not to mention a nifty way of shaming and objectifying someone at the same time. But the fact that this coinage has gained traction suggests more than an abundance of blogospheric photos showing miniskirted, underwear-less starlets stepping a little too widely out of cars. It also suggests that we Americans might have a surprisingly high tolerance — maybe even a secret affinity — for chaotic personality types.
Look what’s happening on the political stage. With Newt Gingrich, a hot mess of a public servant, suddenly leading the polls, many are wondering just how much personal wreckage voters are willing to accept. There is, for starters, the well-known narrative about his pressing his first wife on the terms of their divorce while she was in the hospital fighting cancer, and later, divorcing his second wife after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and he was having an affair.
Then there’s his penchant for relentlessly trying to bring down his opponents for transgressions eerily similar to his own. Gingrich’s ethics charges against Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright in 1988 started with a campaign finance/book deal imbroglio not unlike the campaign finance/college course shenanigans that led to his own historic reprimand. Gingrich’s hammering of another hot mess, Bill Clinton, over the Monica Lewinsky scandal coincided with his own extramarital affair.
It gets better. For instance, the fact that Gingrich’s first wife had been his high school geometry teacher and that, according to a 2010 Esquire interview with his second wife, the relationship began not when he was 18, as he’s previously claimed, but when he was 16 and the teacher was 25.
At first glance, that mess seems as if it would be far too hot for most voters to handle. Curiously, though, the rise of naughty Gingrich seems to have moved the Mitt Romney campaign to supplement the “I’ve been married to the same woman for 42 years” strategy with its own version of bad-boy bravado. Last week, Ann Romney told a gathering of women in Iowa that “Mitt is not what you think at home. He is my most disobedient child.” Since she didn’t elaborate, we can only assume this refers to stealing from the cookie jar or refusing to hand over the remote control during “Full House.”
In other words, give us a break. That routine doesn’t work for high school nerds bragging about getting drunk on peach schnapps at band camp, and it doesn’t work for political candidates trying to humanize themselves by manufacturing lukewarm flaws. There’s a reason that Michelle Obama’s “confessions” about her husband’s snoring and having morning breath during the 2008 campaign weren’t as charming as her handlers might have hoped, just as there’s a reason that, in the wake of Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter’s pregnancy,the grande dame of hot messes didn’t lose as much footing with voters as expected.
The reason is that there’s fundamental conflict in the way Americans evaluate potential leaders. We want them to be good but not too good. We want them to be better than us (smarter, braver, more disciplined) without making us feel bad about ourselves. (President Obama, with his freakishly functional family and annoyingly healthful eating habits, might fall into this category.) On the spectrum between too good to be true and hot mess, we seem most comfortable with something in the middle.
The problem is, you find out where that middle is only when you’ve drifted irreparably away from it. For Herman Cain, one or two sexual harassment claims might have kept him in the sweet spot, but as infidelity was added to harassment charges, the scales tipped too far toward charbroiled mess, and he was out.
The conventional wisdom regarding Gingrich is that his indiscretions are such old news by now that no one will care and some (given that the youngest cohort of voters in the 2012 election was in preschool during the Lewinsky hearings) won’t even remember. But it’s also possible that his secret weapon lies not with voters’ apathy or amnesia but with the good fortune to be running for president when the forgiveness quotient for screwing up is at a historic high.
Either that, or he’s banking on a lot of us thinking it’s really cool to date your 25-year-old teacher when you’re 16.