fb-pixel Skip to main content

Laden with baggage, Newt Gingrich tries to defy odds

Newt Gingrich, ahead of Tuesday’s caucuses, chatted with people during a lunch stop yesterday at The Farmer’s Kitchen restaurant in Atlantic, Iowa.
Newt Gingrich, ahead of Tuesday’s caucuses, chatted with people during a lunch stop yesterday at The Farmer’s Kitchen restaurant in Atlantic, Iowa.CHARLES DHARAPAK/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

The political genesis of Newt Gingrich starts with an improbable tale.

“An 11-year-old is fighting City Hall here in an attempt to establish a zoo,’’ the Associated Press reported from Harrisburg, Pa. “Young Newton Gingrich [said] he and a number of his youthful buddies could round up enough animals to get the project started.’’

Gingrich’s stepfather was aghast that the family name was in the newspaper, but Gingrich loved the attention. “I was hooked forever on public life,’’ he wrote later.

Fifty-seven years later, this moment foreshadows one of the most unlikely journeys in American politics. Over the following years, the Army brat from working-class roots would make his name by taking on entrenched powers. Adopting the media-savvy mantra that “fights make news,’’ and vilifying whomever his Democratic opponents happened to be, he would become the savior and then the villain of the Republican Party, eventually dethroned as House speaker by the same group of conservatives that had put him in power.

Now, as Gingrich seeks a strong showing in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses for the Republican presidential nomination, he is fighting not just for the country’s future, as he often proclaims, but also against his past. If he loses his bid, the reason might be summed up in a single word used against him in a recent advertisement: baggage. He has alienated countless Republican leaders, preached morality while committing adultery, and earned millions of dollars from some of the same special interest groups he has criticized.


But if he wins the nomination, such a victory would doubtless be traced to his ability since childhood to come up with a grand idea and then fight for it against the odds, whether the opponent is City Hall, the Republican Party, the White House, or the preferred presidential candidate of the GOP establishment.


An early interest in politics

Newton Leroy McPherson was born in 1943, the child of a broken marriage. His mother, known as Kit, married at 16 years old to 19-year-old Newt McPherson, but they divorced within days. Three years later, Kit married an Army officer named Robert Gingrich, who adopted little “Newtie.’’

The family moved into an apartment above an Esso gas station in the village of Hummelstown, near the chocolate factories of Hershey, Pa., where the street lamps are shaped like the company’s famous candy Kisses.

Shortly after his fight for a local zoo, Gingrich moved to Europe when his stepfather was transferred there by the Army. Gingrich visited the World War I battlefields of Verdun, pausing at an ossuary that contained the bones of thousands of the dead, a moment he would later describe as “the most stunning event of my life.’’

The family then moved to an Army base in Germany, where he continued his education, writing a 10th grade paper on naval power. After returning from Europe, Gingrich switched his career ambition from zookeeper to politician, and was a Republican from the start.

The family moved to Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga., where Gingrich tested his political skills by successfully running a friend’s campaign for high school student council president. He fell in love with his geometry teacher, Jackie Battley, maintaining a secret relationship with her until graduation. A year after graduation, 19-year-old Newt prepared to marry his 26-year-old former teacher in a Georgia church.


His stepfather disapproved and refused to attend the wedding. His mother wanted to go inside the church but “I couldn’t do it,’’ she said later. So Gingrich stood at the altar with his bride, and, in a formative moment of abandonment, passion, and determination, said his vows.

After graduating from Emory University, Gingrich enrolled in graduate school at Tulane University. Fascinated with Africa, where he dreamed of going on safari, he wrote his thesis on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960.’’ There is no indication in his thesis that he ever went to the Congo. But according to biographer Mel Steely, Gingrich did go to Brussels and talk to Belgians as part of his research. Gingrich concluded that the colonial masters ran the Congo as a for-profit business, and, in a “pathetically unjust’’ action, underfunded education for native Congo residents compared with white settlers. The thesis, with its implicit criticism of colonial Belgians, would later become noteworthy because of the way Gingrich criticized President Obama, whose father was a Kenyan, for his “Kenyan anticolonial behavior’’ in his foreign policies.

Gingrich volunteered in 1968 as a chairman for the Louisiana presidential campaign of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a more moderate choice than former vice president Richard Nixon, who won the nomination. Gingrich returned to Georgia and applied in 1969 for a job teaching history at what was then called West Georgia College, writing, “I am more a critical progressive seeking reform rather than a new leftist seeking radical change.’’ He was hired in 1970 and, just a year later, unsuccessfully sought the college presidency. He settled into his professorship and poured his energy into teaching environmental studies. It is a lesser-known but telling part of Gingrich’s background. Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency and many Republicans viewed the issue as an important one that should not be ceded to Democrats. For Gingrich, it was personal as well. He had grown up with a love of animals and nature, and he took students on overnight canoe trips through southern swamps, camping under the stars.


At the time, one of the hottest best-sellers was Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock,’’ which predicted that society would undergo waves of change involving knowledge and technology that would transform the world. Gingrich met Toffler and still echoes his thinking in frequent remarks about coming transformations.

Tangle with Tip was pivotal

Gingrich launched his first congressional bid in 1974 but lost in a year when the Republican Party was reeling from the Watergate scandal. His timing was bad again in 1976, when Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, won the presidency. Finally, in 1978, he beat a Democratic newcomer and took his seat representing suburban Atlanta.

As Gingrich ran for reelection in 1980, his marriage was crumbling. Jackie had undergone uterine cancer surgery in 1978 and the couple separated in the spring of 1980. In September of that year, Jackie was back in the hospital for surgery to remove a tumor. Gingrich came to see her. “When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from the surgery,’’ Jackie later was quoted as saying by The Washington Post. (Jackie Gingrich has declined comment for years. Her daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, wrote this year that her mother had asked for the divorce, but court documents unearthed by CNN suggest that her father initiated the proceeding. Newt Gingrich has denied reports that he served his wife divorce papers in the hospital, but has acknowledged that he did have an argument with her at the time, apparently over terms of the divorce.) The couple was divorced and Gingrich married a woman he had met at a Republican Party function, Marianne Ginther, in 1981.


Gingrich and his new wife became Washington fixtures as the congressman became a powerful figure. A pivotal moment came in 1984 when Gingrich spoke before a nearly empty chamber and accused a number of Democrats of being soft on communism. Then-Speaker Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts exploded in anger, partly because people viewing on television did not realize the chamber was nearly empty and that the accused were not present to defend themselves. Gingrich had “challenged their Americanism’’ and it was “the lowest thing I have ever seen in my 32 years in the House,’’ O’Neill said later on the House floor. O’Neill’s words were deemed a personal attack that was out of order, causing them to be stricken from the record, an embarrassment that generated enormous media coverage. Gingrich exulted that the clash made him “famous’’ - and sealed his reputation as a bomb-thrower.

Just a year later, the first wave of stories appeared asserting Gingrich had changed. The old Newt - “the House brat,’’ The Washington Post called him - had mellowed. “That was the old me - abrasive, confrontational,’’ Gingrich said at the time. The new Newt said he would strive to get along. But the confrontational Gingrich soon resurfaced stronger than ever. He successfully pushed for an ethics investigation of the Democratic speaker of the House, Jim Wright, on charges of evading campaign finance law in profiting from a book. Wright was forced out of office, and Gingrich used it as a springboard to win election in 1989 as House Republican whip, responsible for party discipline in the chamber.

Gingrich had ascended the party ladder by ousting a moderate, but at the same time, he told the Ripon Society, a group of moderate Republicans, that he had belonged to “the classic moderate wing of the party, where, as a former Rockefeller state chairman, I’ve spent most of my life.’’ He said the GOP should be “a caring, humanitarian reform party’’ and began to be mentioned as a future presidential candidate.

But former Representative Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, who served at the time in the GOP leadership with Gingrich, came to believe that Gingrich’s core belief was to advance himself, not the party. “This is a man only interested in his own grandiosity,’’ Edwards said in an interview. “He is interested only in power for himself and doing whatever is required to get there. He has been attacked for being a right-winger; he is not. He is not a liberal. Other people would say he is pragmatic. What he is, is whatever is going to move Newt forward.’’

Gingrich’s next move was to fight his party’s leader in the White House. President George H.W. Bush had been elected as a “kinder, gentler’’ Republican who famously promised, “Read my lips - no new taxes.’’ But with Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, Bush wanted to strike a deal that would balance the budget and transform the way business was done in Washington. Bush met with Republicans, including Gingrich, and agreed to a deal that cut programs, capped spending, and raised taxes. Bush later said that when he walked out to the Rose Garden to announce the deal, he was surprised that Gingrich had left the grounds. “Where’s Gingrich?’’ Bush said he asked. Then-Senate Republican whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming said in an interview that Gingrich had “lied to the president of the United States’’ about supporting the deal. Gingrich, who has said he never firmly committed to support the budget, embarrassed Bush by announcing that he and a majority of House Republicans opposed the deal.

While the measure passed with Democratic support, Bush and his allies believed that Gingrich’s opposition tore apart the party and caused Bush to lose his 1992 reelection campaign. (Bush recently said he supports Romney for president, noting how Gingrich walked out on him in the 1990 budget deal.)

To many in Newt’s corner, however, Bush’s reelection defeat was worth it because it redefined what the Republican Party stood for, and many in the party now looked to Gingrich for leadership. He provided it in 1994 by coming up with a 10-point “Contract with America,’’ which included no mention of social issues such as abortion but instead focused on overhauling welfare, cutting entitlement spending, and enacting a balanced budget.

Around the same time, Gingrich worked with GOPAC, an independent committee funded largely by corporate interests, to train Republican candidates. The committee distributed tapes that advised Republicans to run highly negative campaigns in order to be elected. Gingrich wrote a memo titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,’’ which urged Republicans to talk about themselves as having “courage’’ and fighting for freedom, while Democrats would be called “pathetic’’ traitors. Democrats, he said, were the “enemy of normal people.’’

A new strain of volatility

Gingrich persuaded 378 Republican candidates for the 435-seat House in 1994 to embrace the contract, and many also adopted Gingrich’s advice of attacking Democrats as disloyal. The election that year was Gingrich’s greatest triumph. At a time when many Republicans believed they were permanently consigned to being in the minority, the party picked up 54 House seats and Gingrich became the first GOP speaker in four decades. He was Time magazine’s Man of the Year. “When he led the revolution in 1994, he did the impossible,’’ said former US representative Robert Livingston of Louisiana.

But the power and adulation created a new strain of volatility. Many of his fellow Republicans viewed him as arrogant, and they disdained his pronouncement that he was a transformational figure. He led the party into a disastrous budget fight against President Bill Clinton that resulted in a government shutdown, a move that was widely viewed as backfiring on the party. Gingrich said he had learned his lesson and worked with Clinton on a welfare reform bill and new measures to balance the budget. Yet another round of stories was written about a gentler, more pragmatic Gingrich. “It was the most successful speakership in modern times,’’ his longtime friend, former representative Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, said in an interview.

But Gingrich, who had launched the ethics committee probe that ousted a Democratic speaker, now found himself being investigated by the same panel. The committee fined him $300,000 for false statements about the tax-exempt status of a course he taught. The full House reprimanded him in 1997 by a 395-to-28 vote.

Gingrich tried to make amends - and some money - by writing a memoir, “Lessons Learned the Hard Way,’’ which included a dedication to his wife Marianne, whom he called in the book not only “the woman I love, she is also my best friend and closest advisor.’’ He revealed in the book that he was having trouble paying his fine for ethical transgressions and that “Marianne reached into the family funds’’ to help pay a $50,000 installment of the fine. Seeking to assure the public he had changed, he included a chapter titled “Know the Difference Between Right and Wrong.’’ He wrote that he had learned from the “unprecedented conflict’’ of his speakership.

But Gingrich still saw conflict as helpful. He pushed the House to launch impeachment proceedings in the wake of an investigation into whether Clinton had lied about having sexual relations with intern Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich’s allies said he pushed the party to focus its 1998 midterm election strategy on highlighting Clinton’s transgressions. The effort backfired and Republicans lost five seats in the House, a worse-than-expected performance. Gingrich was abandoned by a group of former allies, who in effect held a coup of their onetime savior, forcing him to step down as speaker.

“I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals,’’ Gingrich said about his fellow Republicans, firing a parting shot as he left the speakership. Then Gingrich announced that he would refuse to fill out the two-year term to which his Georgia constituents had elected him, and he resigned from Congress.

Extramarital affair revealed

It would later be revealed that at the same time he wrote “Lessons Learned the Hard Way’’ and criticized Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, he had been cheating on Marianne, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Gingrich had been having an affair with a congressional aide named Callista Bisek, who was 23 years younger. He divorced Marianne in 1999 and married Callista in 2000.

Seeking to explain his infidelity, Gingrich later told the Christian Broadcasting Network: “There’s no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.’’ He converted to Catholicism, Callista’s faith, and declared himself to be a newly peaceful and more spiritual man.

Gingrich’s life as an elected politician seemed over. Having once hoped to “shift the entire planet,’’ he now sought to reshape himself. First, he needed to make money. In his last financial disclosure form as a congressman, filed before he had finished paying off his ethics fine, Gingrich reported assets between $197,000 and $606,000. He reached a divorce settlement with Marianne that was kept secret.

The former congressman methodically went about creating a conglomeration of enterprises that would be known as “Newt, Inc.’’ He founded Gingrich Group, a consulting firm, signed a contract to appear on Fox News, gave speeches at up to $60,000 per appearance, and wrote a series of books, including historical novels. The enterprises increased the value of his holdings since he left office as much as fifty-fold. His financial disclosure report for the presidential campaign listed assets with a value between $7.1 million and $31 million.

One of Gingrich’s enterprises was the Center for Health Transformation, a for-profit think tank. The Washington Post has reported that health care interests have paid about $37 million to the center, in amounts ranging from $20,000 to $200,000 per year. Gingrich and the center for years advocated a mandate for individuals who could afford it to purchase health insurance. The mandate has drawn flak from conservatives and opponents despite Gingrich’s disavowal of the principle and opposition to its inclusion in the federal overhaul passed last year. Gingrich has criticized President Obama for supporting a mandate in the federal program and, despite his initial enthusiasm for Mitt Romney’s inclusion of it in the Massachusetts health plan, now says it hasn’t worked. The former speaker also upset some conservatives by supporting a Medicare drug benefit advocated by then-president George W. Bush.

The Gingrich Group and the health care think tank, citing confidentiality agreements, have declined to release a list of clients.

Gingrich’s most controversial work has been his consulting contract with Freddie Mac, the quasi-public mortgage giant. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently accused several former top executives at Freddie Mac with fraud on grounds that they misrepresented the extent of their subprime mortgages; the executives have denied the charges.

Gingrich initially said he served as a “historian’’ for Freddie Mac, and later said that he told them that their sub-prime lending practices were “insane.’’ Gingrich sought to divert attention from his role and said during a debate that two Democrats, Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, should be “put in jail’’ for their role in creating the environment in which Freddie Mac issued sub-prime loans. (Frank and Dodd have denied wrongdoing). Shortly thereafter, Bloomberg News revealed that Gingrich’s firm had been paid $1.6 million by Freddie Mac in consulting fees, partly to counter efforts by congressional conservatives who wanted to dismantle the agency, leading critics to label him as a hypocrite.

One of his primary opponents, US Representative Michele Bachmann, said at a recent debate that Gingrich “had his hand out and he was taking $1.6 million to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going.’’

In his defense, Gingrich has said that he never “lobbied’’ for Freddie Mac, and his associates said that this is a crucial distinction in his consulting business.

“He would have made multiple millions of dollars if he had let me negotiate one contract based on lobbying or influencing lawmakers, but he would not do it,’’ said Randy Evans, who is chairman and legal counsel to all of Gingrich’s ventures. “Companies wanted him to endorse their products but he would not agree ever to do that either.’’

But recently, several Republican congressmen said they believed Gingrich was lobbying them in 2003 when he spoke to them in favor of the expansion of Medicare to include a drug benefit.

While Gingrich was in the consulting business, he also kept alive a political operation, American Solutions for Winning the Future.

The tax-exempt group was allowed under Internal Revenue Service laws to receive unlimited contributions as long as they were disclosed. It raised more than $50 million but spent more than half that amount on fund-raising, most of it paid to an Ohio-based firm, InfoCision, which describes itself as specializing in “political, Christian, and nonprofit fund-raising.’’ After Gingrich announced his presidential candidacy in May, American Solutions for Winning the Future began struggling financially and closed in July.

The group had focused much of its effort on urging US development of energy resources. Major funders included Oklahoma-based oil and natural gas producer Devon Energy, which contributed at least $500,000; Texas-based Plains Exploration and Production Co., an oil and gas producer, which gave at least $200,000; Arch Coal and coal producer Peabody Energy, both of St. Louis, which gave at least $100,000 and $800,000, respectively; and Ohio-based American Electric Power, $400,000.

The contributors also included wealthy supporters of conservative causes and candidates, including Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, at least $6 million; North Carolina real estate developer Fred Godley, $1.2 million; Carl Lindner, whose Cincinnati-based business owned banking, insurance, publishing, and food interests and who died in October, at least $690,000; Crow Holdings, the Dallas real estate development firm headed by Harlan Crow, at least $500,000; and Stanley Hubbard, Minnesota-based broadcast and satellite television executive, at least $375,000.

He also benefited from a company called Gingrich Productions, headed by his wife Callista. It published his books and produced documentary films on energy, radical Islam, religion, Ronald Reagan, and most recently, “American exceptionalism.’’ The company was a principal source of Gingrich’s income, according to his financial disclosure report.

Throughout it all, Gingrich has strived to show that his focus is big and often controversial ideas. One of the most revealing, if lesser-known, efforts came in 2007. In an echo of his Contract with America, Gingrich coauthored a book titled “A Contract with the Earth,’’ expressing his love for animals and nature, and arguing that “our failure to resolve serious environmental challenges will compromise the lives of our children and grandchildren.’’ The book called for an end to political divisions over the environment and argued for government to provide incentives instead of punishment to achieve green goals.

In praise of Thoreau

“Our connection to the earth runs deep; it’s in our religions, our genes, our brain, and the soul of humanity,’’ Gingrich wrote as he praised “great American environmentalists’’ such as Henry David Thoreau. Once again, he seemed to have mellowed. Speaking in an online chat for The Washington Post, he said: “I’m looking for solutions, positive breakthroughs, trying to arouse people with ideas rather than with partisan maneuvering and political tactics. I think that’s the common vein in everything I do.’’

Shortly after the book was published, Gingrich in 2008 sat on a couch with then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi, urging bipartisan action on climate change. But many Republicans were cool to Gingrich’s environmentalism, and he backed away. His next book echoed one of the party’s conservative clarion calls of the 2008 campaign. It was titled “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less.’’

Nonetheless, Gingrich’s initial embrace of the need for climate change legislation, highlighted by his work with Pelosi on the issue, prompted Republican opponents to question whether he still stood with Democrats on climate change. “Sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi is the dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years,’’ Gingrich said recently, distancing himself from his “Contract with the Earth.’’ Climate science, Gingrich wrote, had been corrupted “by the secular-socialist machine.’’

As Gingrich’s maneuvering on climate change illustrates, he is prone to grand pronouncements that sometimes are followed by fulsome admissions that he had been “dumb’’ or learned hard lessons. Some of Gingrich’s admirers chalk it up to poor staff work, or a mind that is so filled with ideas that one thought is often replaced by another one.

Marianne Gingrich, asked last year by Esquire magazine to explain her former husband, put it this way: He “has to be historic to justify his life. . . . He grew up poor and always wanted to be somebody, to make a difference, to prove himself.’’ Marianne thought in 2010 that there was “no way’’ Gingrich would seek the presidency because it would be too difficult for voters to forget his past.

But Gingrich, who had briefly thought about running four years ago, decided to make his bid this time. He was “more mature,’’ he said on Fox News after he announced his candidacy in May, and “I’ve had time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work.’’ He summarized his pitch concisely: “My job is to try to offer the American people a genuine sense that with the right solutions and the right approaches, this country can take off again and we could have a 20- or 30-year period of extraordinary opportunity.’’ But he soon upset conservatives by criticizing a Republican proposal to cut Medicare as “right-wing social engineering,’’ prompting the plan’s author, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, to say, “With allies like that, who needs the left?’’ Gingrich apologized to Ryan, backed away from the charge, and subsequently explained that he meant changing the program would need bipartisan support. Within weeks, his campaign seemed to implode amid reports that Gingrich had a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany & Co. Gingrich went on a Greek cruise, most of his staff resigned, and his political obituary was all but written.

Then, as voters went through a series of alternatives to Mitt Romney, Gingrich in late November began to climb in the polls, prompting yet another examination of his past.

As Gingrich campaigned in Iowa last week he became emotional when discussing the final days of his mother. It had been a difficult week after facing rounds of TV attack ads that appeared to undercut his poll numbers. Yet he insisted he wanted to focus on ideas.

“From the time I was 15 on, I have tried to serve this country, and I have said what I believed to be true, no matter what it cost,’’ he said. “And it would never have occurred to me to ever fudge on that, because it would have violated everything my entire life had been about.’’

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish. Brian C. Mooney can be reached at brian.mooney@globe.com.