The upside: No one’s had much time to examine his three marriages, his philandering, and Wife No. 3’s Tiffany’s addiction.
As Gingrich suddenly surged to the head of the GOP presidential pack, it was inevitable that the media he loves to chastise would take a closer look at his foibles and failings. But remarkably, social conservatives seem to be giving him a pass on his rather eventful personal life and the heavy baggage that accompanies it.
Gingrich’s fortunes improved as four women emerged to accuse pizza mogul Herman Cain of sexual harassment, making conservatives uneasy. So why not the same standard for Newt? It may be that the statute of limitations has run out on his boorish behavior.
“Character and integrity do matter to conservatives, but I think what you’re seeing is an appreciation that Newt has come clean on his personal life—he’s been repentant, he’s been transparent, he’s shown a level of maturity,” says Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative in Iowa. “I had a soccer mom tell me the other day that Newt’s childish days seem to be behind him. That maybe he’s the right man for the right time.”
Vander Plaats, who gained national attention by asking candidates to take a pledge in support of traditional marriage, says people of faith are looking at Gingrich “with fresh eyes. He’s spot-on on many issues.”
Like others interviewed for this piece, he says he’s more troubled by Gingrich’s evolving explanations on why he helped Freddie Mac, the government-backed operation that conservatives blame for the housing bubble and mortgage mess. Gingrich originally said he was hired as a “historian,” then said he was tapped for “strategic advice” after stepping down as House speaker. “That’s recent, and it’s something he needs to address,” Vander Plaats says.
Craig Robinson, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and author of a popular blog, agrees. “I think the one thing to remember about Gingrich is that he’s not new to Iowans,” says Robinson. "He’s been campaigning here for candidates for 20 years. We are very aware of all his marriages and his personal failings.
“Will it turn some off? Absolutely. But his consulting for Freddie Mac is a much bigger deal right now.”
Some detractors, however, are banking on Gingrich’s personal life returning to haunt him if he continues to gain steam. Politico reported this week that an unknown group called “Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government” circulated a nasty flier asking: “Is nothing sacred to Newt?” It adds: “If Newt Gingrich can’t be faithful to his wife, how can we trust him to be faithful to conservative voters.”
What follows is a summary of his two failed marriages.
Those behind the flier presumably want to make sure no one forgets Newt’s sordid past, which goes like this:
In 1962, Gingrich married his high-school geometry teacher, Jackie Battley, with whom he had two children. He then had a fling with Marianne Ginther, and eventually left his wife to marry her.
The particularly egregious part of this first breakup was that Gingrich approached Jackie to discuss the divorce while she lay in a hospital recovering from cancer surgery—an account that has haunted Gingrich for years. The former congressman has denied the story. But 20 years ago Jackie Battley told me in an interview that was exactly how it went down,
“He can say that we had been talking about it for 10 years, but the truth is that it came as a complete surprise,” she said. “He’s a great wordsmith ... He walked out in the spring of 1980, and I returned to Georgia. By September, I went into the hospital for my third surgery. The two girls came to see me, and said Daddy is downstairs and could he come up? When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from the surgery.”
Gingrich and Callista Bisek, then a congressional aide on the House payroll, began seeing each other in mid-1990s, while Newt was still married to Marianne—and while he was loudly criticizing Bill Clinton during the1998 impeachment proceedings over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Gingrich and Bisek were married in 2000.
In 2007, Gingrich acknowledged for the first time in a radio interview with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson that he cheated on his first two wives. “There were times when I was praying and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong. But I was still doing them,” Gingrich said. “I look back on those as periods of weakness and periods that I’m not only not proud of, but I would deeply urge my children and grandchildren not to follow in my footsteps.”
Earlier this year, Gingrich did another mea culpa in an extended interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “There’s no question at times of my life, things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” Gingrich said. “And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them.” Gingrich said he sought “God’s forgiveness,” and “I think most people, deep down in their hearts hope there’s a forgiving God.”
“He’s been campaigning here for 20 years. We are very aware of all his marriages and his personal failings.”
Says Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative Media Research Center: “I think there comes a point where you have to decide either I will forgive him and move on, or I’ll never forgive him. If peoples have not forgiven him by now, they never will.”
Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, puts it this way: “A good moral compass is essential in leadership. But as Christians, we accept the notion of a sinful nature and the need for repentance and redemption. I know that Newt admitted his failures … and embraced a resolution to be a different man in the future. That takes a lot of courage. Newt is surging in large part due to his obvious grasp of the issues but also a persona of humility in the debates. If that’s the new Newt Gingrich, and voters judge him to be sincere, then I think he has a bright future.”
That future may dim a bit as Gingrich struggles to explain his Freddie Mac payday, and as a press corps that once wrote him off trains its investigative spotlight on him. But if the reaction of social conservatives is any indication, Newt’s biggest personal vulnerability—his serial marriages—may now be old news.