article

05.28.11

Titillation Over Tiffany's

What exactly was Newt Gingrich buying with all that bling? Lauren Ashburn on a gem of a Washington mystery.

It was hard to miss the news of Newt and Callista Gingrich's eye-popping charge account at Tiffany's. Maybe you didn't read the Politico scoop or catch Bob Schieffer's riveting Face the Nation interview asking Newt, "Who buys a half million dollars of jewelry on credit?" By the next morning Gingrich's defensive answer—"Go talk to Tiffany's"— filled the airwaves and yet another political scandal was glittering across the media landscape.

In my 22 years in Washington, this is the first one I can remember involving a little blue box.

Since Callista and I frequent the same downtown D.C. hair salon, I can attest to the fact that she likes to look good. She is what women call a "girly girl" a la Cindy McCain. Her hair is a pale blonde masterpiece sculpted by an "artiste," her clothes immaculate, and it's obvious by her size that she knows her way around a treadmill or two. I mean, a make-up artist travels with her, for goodness sake.

So it was hardly shocking to learn that she also likes nice jewelry. But $500,000 worth over two years? Whoa. The price tag makes even a jewelry lover like me blanch. Knowing Newt's history with women and affairs, an obvious question leapt into mind: What did Newt do to necessitate such a huge "I'm sorry" tab?

Jim Rosenheim, the owner of D.C.'s exclusive boutique Tiny Jewel Box, knows the type all too well. "When candy and flowers aren't enough, jewelry is an old standby," he says. The store started as a stand more than 80 years ago and has always been family-run. "My mother used to make men buy two pieces, one for the occasion and the one for when he would be in the doghouse."

The men-behaving-badly purchases have filled the company coffers – sometimes very handsomely. The store now occupies six floors in the heart of the city and Rosenheim is about to be inducted into the Jeweler Hall of Fame. Part of his secret to success? His lips are sealed on pols with apology issues.

To party on the Washington A-list circuit, one must follow a jewelry protocol. A glance in Callista's jewelry chest (not box) would most likely include the prerequisite clinquant diamond checklist: wedding band(s), two-carat plus engagement ring, studs and dangling earrings, tennis bracelet, and most definitely a necklace with a carat or two resting in the small of her neck. We would possibly spy a diamond watch, but most likely a Rolex would suffice. Price tag: $10,000 to $30,000. This would not include the occasional sapphire or emerald bauble, nor the gold or pearl necessities.

With this tally, tens of thousands of dollars sounds reasonable. But a half a million smackers, even under a no-interest revolving account, smells funny. Especially for a man with presidential aspirations who is on his third wife. And especially when men have a pattern of buying their way out of trouble.

Since Gingrich isn't saying much, beyond the fact that he no longer owes money and is entitled to spend his earnings as he sees fit, anything is possible. Let's review: In 1962, at age 19, Newt marries first wife, Jackie Battley, his former high school geometry teacher. After an alleged affair, they divorce in 1981 after Jackie discovers she has cancer. According to Battley, he visited her while she was in the hospital, recovering from surgery, to discuss the terms of their divorce. (Gingrich denies it.)

Half a million smackers, even under a no-interest revolving account, smells funny. Especially for a man with presidential aspirations who is on his third wife.

Within months he marries Marianne Ginther, a former county planner from Ohio. They separate a few times during their marriage, and at one point Newt says his "habit of dominance" contributed to the split. Dominance? Um, well, to avoid the ick factor let's believe he meant he put his career ahead of his marriage.

Fast forward to 1999. Newt, now 56, decides to dump Marianne. So he picks up the phone and calls her while she is celebrating her mother's 84th birthday. After saying happy birthday to his mother-in-law, he delivers the devastating blow that he is having an affair with a congressional aide 23 years his junior. Enter Callista. Gingrich, of course, had been leading the impeachment drive against Bill Clinton over his own dalliance with a White House intern. Newt marries his mistress a short time later.

In our society, men have a longstanding tradition of begging forgiveness through jewels. Look at NBA star Kobe Bryant. In 2003, Colorado prosecutors announced that he was being charged with raping a 19-year-old. The next day he walked his wife, Vanessa, and their 6-month-old daughter, into an exclusive jewelry boutique in Santa Monica. The couple walked out hand in hand with an 8-carat purple diamond ring worth a cool $4 million. Maybe that's why they're still married after the charges against Kobe were dismissed, though he denies it was an apology gift. (Note to Newt: Good thing you don't play basketball.)

In the absence of facts, it is always easy to jump to conclusions; to find bread crumbs and assign a malevolent purpose. Maybe Newt simply loves his wife and enjoys buying lots of bling. Or maybe it's part of the marriage contract.

So was the New York Times right to put Tiffanygate on the front page, with a picture of a beaming Callista sporting a necklace estimated to be worth $45,000? And shortly after an earlier Page 1 piece about Callista's journey from Other Woman to adoring wife always by his side? True, the country's future undoubtedly rests more heavily on its $14-trillion debt. But what American women—okay, this woman—really want to know is what Newt bought and what he thought he was buying in return. And no amount of campaign glitz is going to distract us from getting the answers.

Lauren Ashburn is a 20-year journalist and former managing editor for USA Today and Gannett Broadcasting. She has appeared on CNN, CBS News, and PBS and writes for The Washington Post, Huffington Post and USA Today.