Newt Gingrich is a phoenix. He's risen again and again from political ashes and appears to be ascendant once more. Rumored to be running for president
in 2012, Gingrich is an icon in the Republican Party, an eminence grise at a time of lost leadership. His fall from grace
in the late 1990s seems a blip, rather than a political ending.
Thus the cover story in Esquire Magazin
e, September issue, written by John H. Richardson.
If anyone knows something about Newt Gingrich, it is his former wife, Marianne, and Richardson scored an interview with her.
She is someone with a bone to pick, one that stems from the ending of their 18-year marriage with an affair. She knows a lot, and has never before spoken out. Richardson notes she is a "Tea Party" conservative. She believes in what she thought Newt Gingrich believed in, too.
Newt proposed to Marianne (she was 28, he 36) in 1980 while his first wife, Jackie, was in the hospital recovering from treatments for uterine cancer. He hadn't yet even asked her for a divorce. Newt met Jackie in high school. She was his geometry teacher. He was sixteen, she was 25. When he left, Jackie was nearly destitute. Jackie, the Esquire story reports, "had to get a court order just to pay her utility bills."
These are among the personal tidbits that Marianne Gingrich (she kept his name, these 10 years since the divorce and subsequent annulment), drops casually into the Esquire writer's lap as she smokes endlessly, each cigarette "down to the filter."
Some of the revelations are small -- Newt hated to be criticized for his weight, more than anything. Some of them challenge the folksy narrative Gingrich has created for himself, about his mother, for example. "She was pretty drugged up for a long time," Marianne tells Richardson.
Some of them are explosive in a town that privileges quiet staffers over mouthy associates. "He's a sociopath, but he's our sociopath," Marianne Gingrich quotes his staffers as saying, during the late 1990s when the House Ethics Committee investigated
Gingrich's GOPAC's donations and his charity fundraising came under suspicion.
Callista Bisek, Gingrich's current wife, became his mistress first and his wife second (really third, if one is counting wives), while Marianne was home visiting her mother. In 1999, Marianne had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Newt asked Callista to marry him before he and Marianne had agreed to divorce. The affair had been going on for years. Newt compared Marianne to a "Jaguar" and Callista to a "Chevrolet" and said he needed a Chevrolet, not a Jaguar, according to the Esquire story. In 2000 the couple wed.
Even so Gingrich continued to give speeches about family. "How do you give that speech and do what you are doing?" Marianne asked him. They were in the death throes of their relationship. "It doesn't matter what I do," he told her, according to the Esquire story. "People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I say. It doesn't matter what I live."
He recently converted to Catholicism
and asked Marianne to agree to an annulment. "It has no meaning," Marianne Gingrich told Richardson. (Amy Sullivan, writing in Time magazine
last year, noted that it might be a prep move for a 2012 bid, and also noted that Callista is a lifelong Catholic and sings in the choir.)
The former Mrs. Gingrich believes that Gingrich's do-what-I say, not what I do philosophy will be his undoing. "There's no way," she tells Richardson, of Gingrich becoming president. "He could have been president. But when you try and change your history too much, and try and recolor it because you don't like the way it was or you want it to be different to prove something new...you lose touch with who you really are. You lose your way...He believes that what he says in public and how he lives doesn't have to be connected. If you believe that, then yeah, you can run for president."
Richardson met with Gingrich in his Washington, D.C., K Steet offices. But all of his questions were met with the narrative that Gingrich always offers. His childhood, for example, was all "sugar pies" and "fabulous." (Richardson writes that Gingrich's mother was manic-depressive.) Gingrich says his conversion to Catholicism was for Bisek. "Callista and I kid that I'm four and she's five and therefore she gets to be in charge because the difference between four and five is a lot," he told Richardson, maintaining a cheerful, unruffled air throughout their interview. Marianne Gingrich says the line was hers, not her former husband's.