Gingrich’s painful childhood was scarred by his mother’s manic-depression—and a distant, violent stepfather. The Daily Beast’s Gail Sheehy draws upon dozens of interviews with family members to trace the former speaker’s path, including his mother’s assertion that she “almost didn’t” survive his childhood and his stepfather’s admission that he once “smashed [Newt] against the wall” for breaking curfew.
The psychology of Newt Gingrich has been under relentless public attack, with his former House colleagues lining up to declare him “unfit,” “unstable,” “positively scary,” and “a disaster.” He’s batted away his adversaries as Lilliputians unable to recognize “a big thinker,” “a definer of civilization” who “wants to shift the entire planet.” But when Mitt Romney began leveling his rise in the national polls by branding him as “zany,” it seemed to get under Newt’s skin.
What do we know about how his unique temperament was shaped? I was fortunate to interview his mother and stepfather before they died about Newt’s upbringing and his mother’s bipolar condition, and to discuss with Gingrich himself his self-invention as a “mythical person.”
“I think it is fair to say, if you want to write a psychological piece, that part of my life has been trying to live up to a standard of toughness and responsibility,” Gingrich told me. It was the summer of 1995. He sat back on the verandah outside his grand office as speaker of the House, rolled up his shirt sleeves, scratched his arms, and propped his hands on top of his head while surveying the Capitol lawn like Laird of the Manor. (Gingrich and his family declined, through spokesperson R.C. Hammond, to comment for this Daily Beast article.)
He’d agreed to meet and discuss his childhood for an article I was working on for Vanity Fair, intrigued that I had already done 70 interviews with his family, friends, and political operatives, and that I had read about Robert the Bruce, a medieval Scotsman who waged a private revolution against the whole British Army and preserved Scotland’s independence. The Bruce was enshrined among Newt’s pantheon of psychic heroes.
“I had a period of thinking that I would have been called ‘Newt the McPherson,’” he told me, referring to his youth, when he strongly identified with his biological father, Newton McPherson.
What happened to dislodge that identity? I wondered aloud. He suggested that I go through his childhood and his background and find some way of describing it.
“A heck of a mess” was how his mother, Kit, described Newt’s background when we sat down alone earlier that year in her kitchen in Dauphin, Pa. With her brows knitted together in a permanent frown of anxiety, she tried to untangle for me the twisted history from which young Newt tried to construct an identity.
Kit was 14 when her father, a railroad worker, was killed in a violent accident. “Things for me went downhill,” she said. “My mother had a breakdown. She wiped out.” Kit took a job cleaning houses and fell for a big, brawling man named Newt McPherson. When she found herself pregnant at 16, she had to leave high school. “My mother made me go through with the wedding,” Kit told me. She wore gray and invited no one. Big Newt, she said, scared her to death. He was physically enormous: “6 foot 3, and he could use a nine-pound sledgehammer with one hand,” according to Newt. Days after giving birth, Kit filed for divorce. Big Newt joined the Navy and Kit moved back in with her mother.
“I almost didn’t” survive, Kit Gingrich blurted out. “I had manic-depressive illness.”
It wasn’t long before Kit married a bar-fighting bread-truck driver, Bob Gingrich. He had missed World War II, ridiculed for being 4-F. When he was later drafted, he turned into “your typical military father,” according to gay-rights activist Candace Gingrich-Jones, Newt’s sister. A brittle man with a wad of tobacco bulging behind his scowl, he stood at a distance from the table when the rest of the family gathered in a coffee shop for our interview. He boasted of having shown no physical affection to Newt. “You don’t do that with boys. I didn’t even do it with my girls,” he said, referring to Newt’s three half-sisters. He looked at his wife. “When was the last time I told you I loved you?”
“That’s a good question,” Kit said.
“If I tell you once, that’s all that’s necessary.”
Newt was a solitary boy whose extreme nearsightedness made it extremely difficult for him to recognize people until he was about 12, according to Bob Gingrich. He made few if any friends, said relatives. From heroes in history books and cowboy movies he extracted idealizations of himself. It was in the darkened theater of the mind, the local cheese box of a movie theater in Hummelstown, that he had his awakening, “a moment where I realized, I can be a leader,” he said.
He would watch John Wayne kill the bad guys four or five times in a row and go home to try aping the laconic lope of the 6-foot-4 actor. This was not easy for a short, pudgy boy. Nevertheless, he said, “I imprinted John Wayne … as my model of behavior. I was a 50-year-old at 9.”
When Newt dared, at 15, to break the old man’s curfew of 11 p.m., Bob Gingrich recalled, with an intimidating pantomime, how he “grabbed him by the lapels and I smashed him against the wall. Then I dropped him. He didn’t do it again.”
There was more than a hint of rivalry when the little-schooled elder Gingrich volunteered the information that the bookish Newt was “only a runner-up as a National Merit Scholar. He wasn’t an A student … he wasn’t the class pride.” He added, with no sign of regret, that “some people thought I was too rough with Newt.”
Newt’s was a rootless boyhood as his stepfather’s military career moved the family around the U.S. and abroad. His mother became more and more emotionally fragile. How did she survive? I asked Kit Gingrich.
“I almost didn’t,” she blurted out. “I had manic-depressive illness.”
“Oh, sure. My life was moving from one post to another and another doctor and more medicine,” she told me. “You name it,” she said, referring to all the medications she was given for bipolar disorder, “and I was on it.” When a new doctor took her off all medication, she said, “I almost fell apart.” Bob Gingrich was furious and demanded that she be medicated again. But in that brief window of clarity, she told me, she saw him with new eyes. “Bob is a tyrant,” she declared. “No question about it.”
Newt grew to the age of 15 believing that Bob Gingrich was his real father. When he found out that his real father was named Newt McPherson, a fine Scottish name, a great fantasy grew in his mind. “Robert the Bruce,” Gingrich rhapsodized, “is the guy who would not, could not, avoid fighting ... He carried the burden of being Scotland.” To be called Newt the McPherson would be hugely significant. It would mean that Newt was head of the tribe, the supreme leader.
That fantasy was dashed. It was the traumatic point of his adolescence. Newt took a sip from his dinosaur mug. “I was furious because I figured out in Europe that my real father had agreed to allow me to be adopted,” he said.
Marcella McPherson, Big Newt’s second wife, remembered a 16-year-old Newt coming to her door and confronting her: “Why did my father take my name from me?” he demanded. His father wanted no part of him. He would never be Newt the McPherson.
Anger flashed in his face as he recounted that moment of rejection almost 40 years earlier. I learned the back story from Kit Gingrich. Big Newt had called her when little Newt was 3 years old. “His new wife was pregnant,” said Kit. “He said that if I would drop the past four months of child-support payments, Bob Gingrich could adopt Newtie. Isn’t it awful, a man willing to sell off his own son?”
Years later, Newt was able to see his two fathers through a cold eye: “They’re both angry,” he told me. “They both served in the military. They both believe in a very male kind of toughness. They’re both totalitarian.” His mother’s legacy of manic-depression may be even more relevant. The condition is inherited in about 80 percent of cases. I asked Gingrich if he thought he had a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder. He didn’t blink. He said he didn’t know, then applauded the special powers of leaders who are thought to have been bipolar.
“Churchill had what he called his ‘black dog,’” he said. “Lincoln had long periods of depression. You go down the list …” He speculated that leaders who are able to think on several levels at once may have a different biochemical makeup. “You have to have a genetic toughness just to take the beating,” he concluded.
Churchill sought treatment for his “black dog,” and his doctor, Lord Moran, wrote a memoir about his famous patient describing many of the symptoms of manic-depression as they are understood today. One of its hallmarks is grandiosity. Churchill was notorious for his disdain for other people and their opinions, and unwavering in his belief in himself as a great man with a grand destiny.
Gingrich began early on making similar predictions of his destiny “to change the world,” On some level, he accomplished this when he brought the Republican leadership out of a 40-year freeze and into power in the House in 1994. As a bellicose speaker, brandishing his Contract With America—a manifesto on shrinking the size of government and cutting taxes—he muzzled dissenters and rolled over critics like a Roman charioteer.
In Churchill’s hyper-phases, his indefatigable high spirits bolstered the British people through the blitz and allowed him to drive his aides through sleepless nights while he drank brandy and sodas and wrote his soaring speeches. Gingrich, too, has a prodigious energy. Even now, at 68, he is constantly traveling, speechifying, and writing, with 23 books to his name (some branded and co-authored).
Dr. Frederick Goodwin, director of the Center on Neuroscience, Behavior, and Society at the George Washington University Medical Center and a national authority on bipolar disorder, said that “Gingrich’s quickness, his ability to pick things up quickly, is consistent with studies of first-degree relatives of manic-depressives.”
While stating that he was not making a diagnosis, he noted that in leaders, hypomanic behavior is “often intolerant and impulsive.” Studies characterize the thinking of a person in a hypomanic state as “flighty. He jumps by bypaths from one subject to another, and cannot adhere to anything.”
Gingrich repeatedly stunned his House colleagues in the Republican leadership when he was involved in lengthy negotiations over a major policy proposal and agreed to every detail, only to go public and pull the rug out from under them. Where some see this as evidence of his “flightiness,” others see a man willing to say whatever comes into his head as long as it will capture the next news cycle.
He is highly emotional, Gingrich told me. He has never been without a wife since making a jailbreak marriage at 19, escaping his disturbed mother to marry his high-school geometry teacher, Jackie, a maternal figure seven years his senior.
Having “skipped adolescence,” as he put it, Gingrich made up for it years later as a married candidate in the 1970s. Former staff members told me they never knew when they’d find him cavorting with other women. During his 1976 campaign, he began an affair with the wife of another professor at West Georgia College, Anne Manning, a pretty young Englishwoman. “We had oral sex,” Manning told me. “He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, ‘I never slept with her.’” Two decades before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Gingrich had already adopted the same tactic of implausible deniability. Gingrich declined to comment on Manning's comments for the 1995 Vanity Fair piece.
In 1981, six months after divorcing Jackie, Gingrich made another jailbreak marriage, wedding Marianne Ginther, a politically naive girl of 28 from a speck of an Ohio town with whom he could play Henry Higgins. When the Lewinsky scandal threatened to sink Clinton in 1998, Gingrich initially joined in the gang-up by his House colleagues, until others in the Republican leadership became worried that he was “too close” to Clinton and too vulnerable, given his own reckless infidelities.
In an interview with Marianne in Esquire, his former wife revealed that Clinton called Gingrich one night and asked him to come to the White House immediately. The president laid out his case, according to Marianne: “You’re a lot like me.” Whatever transpired in that conversation, from that day to the midterm elections Gingrich took a back seat in bashing the president. He was still reeling from the unprecedented ethics censure his colleagues in the House had handed down the year before, when five Republicans went down in 1998, and Gingrich was virtually forced out as speaker by his Republican members, and he resigned from Congress.
After that disgrace, Newt lurched from bravado to hopelessness and immobility as he plotted out a five-year plan to restore his reputation. Marianne said his radical mood swings reminded her of his mother and her manic-depression. She told her husband he needed help.
Around the same time, Marianne suffered a blow of her own, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. She says her husband hardly took notice. He was deeply involved with a congressional aide 23 years his junior, the former Callista Bisek. When Marianne confronted him, he did not disclose that their affair had been going on for at least two years. He did not reveal that he had already asked the woman to be his next wife. Instead, says Marianne, he asked his current wife to tolerate the affair. She refused and sought a divorce. (This is Marianne’s version of events. Neither she nor her attorney responded to queries for this article.)
Marianne raged at Newt for his sanctimony in giving high-minded speeches about family values—how could he stand up and say such things and do what he was doing? His retort, she said: “People need to hear what I have to say … It doesn’t matter what I live.”