In 1999, after refusing to take the seat he won in the 1998 elections, Newt Gingrich left his second wife, Marianne, for a much-younger staffer with whom he’d been having an almost-ignored affair. As in his first marriage, he did so shortly after Marianne was diagnosed with a serious illness; as in his first divorce, he fought Marianne tooth and nail over any financial settlement. And then he had the Atlanta archdiocese inform Marianne that their marriage was invalid in the eyes of his fiancÃ©e’s faith; 9 years later, he completed his conversion to Catholicism.
Given his popularity among Republicans, one would think there is little left to say about Gingrich’s personal foibles that could hurt his political career. But sandwiched in between snippets from his campaign to return to popularity in yesterday’s Esquire profile are tidbits from the still-supportive Marianne that portray Gingrich in a far-from-pleasant light — and hints that his personal foibles took quite a toll on his political fortunes behind the scenes.
Before marrying Marianne, Gingrich presented his first wife, Jackie Battley, with the terms of their divorce as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from surgery for uterine cancer. Gingrich had pursued Marianne from nearly the moment they met at a January 1980 fundraiser:
She told him about the local economic decline, he said somebody needed to save the country. She said that he couldn’t do it alone, he asked about her plans for the future. Even then, he was making rash pronouncements that reasonable people made fun of, such as that he would be the next Republican Speaker of the House.
They kept the conversation going on the phone, often talking late into the night. Although he was still married to Jackie, Gingrich told Marianne they were in counseling and talking about divorce.
Of course, they weren’t. In April 1980, only one day after Jackie’s surgery, Newt went to her room to present her with the terms of the divorce. That summer, he introduced Marianne to his parents, according to Esquire. By October, he was already refusing to pay alimony or child support. Marianne admits she knew little of that at first.
At first, she had no idea that the wife he was divorcing was actually his high school geometry teacher, or that he went to the hospital to present her with divorce terms while she was recovering from uterine cancer and then fought the case so hard, Jackie had to get a court order just to pay her utility bills. Gingrich told her the story a little at a time, trusting her with things that nobody else knew — to this day, for example, the official story is that he started dating Jackie when he was eighteen and she was twenty-five. But he was really just sixteen, she says.
The divorce was finalized in February 1981; Marianne and Gingrich wed six months later in August. She says now that she probably should have known better. She told Esquire that he asked her to marry him after only a few weeks and before he was divorced, adding, “It’s not so much a compliment to me. It tells you a little bit about him.”
Esquire goes on to describe the financial pressures faced by the new couple: Gingrich declared keeping a budget “too stressful,” so Marianne took that over, looking to maintain homes in Georgia and D.C., pay Gingrich’s alimony and child support and reduce his massive personal debt. A Vanity Fair article from 1995 indicates that Jackie, too, was in charge of the household finances because of Gingrich’s spendthrift ways: in fact, the debt the couple faced when they married in 1981 wasn’t paid off until 1994.
In 1997, Gingrich was fined $300,000 by the House for ethics violations related to college courses and a non-profit. He and Marianne didn’t have the money, so he began to write a book. But the book didn’t turn out as anyone expected: it was a dramatic apology that Marianne described as “weird.” With his inner circle, she attempted to edit it into something publishable — but they ended up scrapping the manuscript entirely.
After the book petered out in 1997, Marianne said that his behavior began to deteriorate.
After that, Gingrich started to deteriorate. There were times, Marianne says, when he wasn’t functioning. He started yelling at people, which he’d never done before, and he’d get weirdly “overfocused” on getting things done — manic, as if he was running out of time. He took to taking meetings while eating, slurping his food, as if he wasn’t aware or didn’t care how strange it looked. The staff responded with gallows humor: “He’s a sociopath, but he’s our sociopath.”
Marianne said that, in the summer of 1997, Republican leadership attempted to stage an intervention with Marianne’s help. The problem was Gingrich’s “volcanic” temper — and when Gingrich arrived a the meeting, they told him that his anger was dysfunctional, and the dysfunction was causing the American people to turn against Congress and the Republicans. Gingrich appeared to listen – but, according to Marianne, “But from then on his behavior only got more erratic.” Despite his increasingly erratic behavior, Gingrich proceeded to hammer out several compromises with the Clinton Administration to balance the budget and cut taxes — until 1998, when the Lewinsky scandal exploded.
Gingrich, like several of his colleagues, were not immune from charges of infidelity.
In 1998, Salon reported that, much like his first marriage, Newt was dogged with rumors about alleged infidelities. In addition to rumors swirling around the Hill in 1997 and 1998, Gingrich faced accusations that he conducted an affair in 1977 based on his ability to deny that he’d “had sex” with a woman. From the 1995 Vanity Fair profile:
In the spring of 1977, [Anne Manning, who admitted to a relationship with Gingrich that started during his 1976 campaign] was in Washington to attend a census-bureaus workshop when Gingrich took her to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. He met her back at her modest hotel room. “We had oral sex,” she says. “He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, “I never slept with her.” Indeed, before Gingrich left that evening, she says, he threatened her: “If you ever tell anybody about this, I’ll say you’re lying.”
A neighbor of his first wife, Jackie’s, said he, too, saw Gingrich engaging in extramarital oral sex.
Kip Carter, who lived a few doors down from the couple, saw more than he wanted to. “We had been out working a football game –I think it was the Bowdon game– and we would split up. It was a Friday night. I had Newt’s daughters, Jackie Sue and Kathy, with me. We were all supposed to meet back at this professor’s house. It was a milk-and-cookies kind of shakedown thing, buck up the troops. I was cutting across the yard to go up the driveway. There was a car there. As I got to the car, I saw Newt in the passenger seat and one of the guys’ wives with her head in his lap going up and down. Newt kind of turned and gave me his little-boy smile. Fortunately, Jackie Sue and Kathy were a lot younger and shorter then.
That article came out, of course, before the sordid details of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and his artfully worded denials were public.
Marianne hints in the Esquire profile that Clinton may have been much better informed about her husband’s extracurricular activities than she was — and that he may have used that information to his advantage one night in 1998.
One night, Marianne says, Bill Clinton called from the White House. She answered the phone and the president asked if he could please speak to her husband. Could the Speaker come over immediately? After he hung up, Newt summoned his driver and went in the back door to the Oval Office. During that meeting, he would tell her later, Clinton laid it out for him: “You’re a lot like me,” he told him.
Whatever else happened at that meeting, Newt Gingrich was muzzled in the critical run-up to the ’98 midterms. Three weeks before the election, Gingrich got a visit from Kenneth Duberstein, a senior Republican who had served as chief of staff to Ronald Reagan. “He says, ‘What’s going on? We’re gonna lose seats if something doesn’t change.’ ” Marianne jumped in, too. “I asked Newt, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t we out there blasting them?’ ”
This was his true turning point, she believes. As his personal failures and his political contradictions closed in on him, she began to entertain fears about his fundamental decency.
She was, of course, to be proved right.
After the Republican losses in 1998, then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA) pressured Gingrich to resign as Speaker, threatening to run against him if he did not. (Students of political history will recall that, 6 short weeks later, Livingston himself withdrew as speaker and left Congress 6 months after that in the wake of revelations of his own marital infidelities.) Gingrich left Congress in early 1999.
It was then that Marianne went to the doctor and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In early May — just before Mother’s Day — she went to Ohio to visit her mother. She told Esquire that Gingrich didn’t return her calls for two days — which, for a man that usually checked in several times a day, was quite unusual. And when he finally returned her calls, that’s when she knew.
He wanted to talk in person, he said.
“I said, ‘No, we need to talk now.’ ”
He went quiet.
“There’s somebody else, isn’t there?”
She kind of guessed it, of course. Women usually do. But did she know the woman was in her apartment, eating off her plates, sleeping in her bed?
Probably not. Marianne didn’t give up on her marriage so easily — but Gingrich asked something of her she could not give.
She called a minister they both trusted. He came over to the house the next day and worked with them the whole weekend, but Gingrich just kept saying she was a Jaguar and all he wanted was a Chevrolet. ” ‘I can’t handle a Jaguar right now.’ He said that many times. ‘All I want is a Chevrolet.’ ”
He asked her to just tolerate the affair, an offer she refused.
Undoubtedly, his mistress — a Callista Bisek, a former Hill staffer who was then 32 — would not have appreciated the comparison. Bisek and Gingrich had reportedly been having an affairs for 6 years before Gingrich told Marianne.
After Gingrich’s phoned-in confession, they talked at their home — just after he’d given a speech in Erie, Pennsylvania about the importance of family values. She told Esquire she asked him how he could give such a speech days after he’s admitted his affair to her and asked her to tolerate it
“It doesn’t matter what I do,” he answered. “People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”
If Marianne was not keen on her husband’s moral hypocrisy, she became less enamored with his efforts to deny her as much alimony as possible — or his efforts to tell the world that they’d had an open relationship. It wasn’t until Gingrich deposed his own mistress in their divorce proceedings that he admitted the affair had been going on for six years. Marianne denies that she knew of the affair or allowed it to continue.
In a telling anecdote, Gingrich attempted to explain to Esquire reporter John Richardson his relationship with Bisek as one in which she, of course, is more mature than he.
“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.”
Richardson repeats the anecdote to Marianne, who finds it jarring.
Her eyes go wide when she hears his line about being four to Callista’s five. “You know where that line came from? Me. That’s my line. That’s what I told him.”
She pauses for a moment, turning it over in her mind. Then she shakes her head in wonder. “I’m sorry, that’s so freaky.”
There’s a lot of that going around.