Maybe Newt Gingrich’s marital history isn’t the leading predictor of his performance as president.
But the way a man treats the women in his life does, as he himself has acknowledged, offer us a window into his character. His record as a husband does parallel a certain fickleness on policy. And the women he ch
ose to marry do tell us something about his evolution as a person.
In his teens, he married a woman who mothered him. In his 30s, he wed a woman who was broken by him. And in his 60s, he partnered with a woman who accessorized him. As president, is the best we could hope for some combo of spoiled child, browbeating bully and smug trophy holder?
The first Mrs. Newt Gingrich was Jackie Battley, his high school geometry teacher from Columbus, Georgia. They married in 1962, when he had just turned 19 and she was 26. Jackie supported him financially through college and graduate school; a Georgia colleague once told Vanity Fair that “all the way through the Ph.D., he didn’t work.”
Another friend from that era described Jackie as a “nurturing, mothering kind of person”who “finished raising him.”
“He was her little boy,” said Kit Gingrich, Newt’s actual mother, who struggled with bipolar disorder.
Over the course of their 18-year marriage, the couple had two daughters and Gingrich joined the faculty of West Georgia College history department.
With Jackie’s tireless and indispensible help, Gingrich ran three times for Congress as a “moral values” man before he was elected to his first term in 1978. His former campaign aides have told reporters that their efforts were made more complicated by the candidate’s philandering and indiscretion.
Even when he eventually prevailed at the ballot box, “It was a very, very bad period of my life,” he later told Mother Jones: “I ultimately wound up at a point where suicide, or going insane, or divorce were the last three options.” By 1980, Gingrich had made his choice.
“It came as a complete surprise,” Jackie later told the Washington Post’s Lois Romano. “He walked out in the spring.” That September, Jackie, in the hospital for her third cancer surgery, had a visitor. Their daughters told her, “Daddy is downstairs.” But when he came up, Jackie told the Post, “He wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering.”
(Thankfully, the first Mrs. G. survived her illness, and her daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, recently wrote that the situation was more complicated, and less-one-sided, than her mother had suggested.)
Gingrich, ever optimistic, married Marianne Ginther as soon as his union with Jackie was dissolved. (I’ll say this for Newt; he makes good on his pledges to paramours.)
Marianne, only 27, became an ideal cloth-coat Republican wife for Newt’s two-decade career in Congress. While the marriage lasted 19 years, by 8 years in, the Congressman was feeling his old familiar emotional upheaval, telling the Washington Post that chances of this second marriage succeeding were “53-47.” (The couple had separated in 1987 but reconciled in late 1993.)
“You talk about crying!” he told the Post’s Myra McPherson. “The spring of 1988, I spent a fair length of time trying to come to grips with who I was and the habits I had …. I really spent a period of time where, I suspect, I cried three or four times a week. I read “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them” and I found frightening pieces that related to ... my own life.”
Nevertheless, the marriage continued and his political stance on the nuclear family as the essential ethical and moral unit of society was stronger than ever.
His GOP 1994 Contract with America had turned both chambers of Congress from Democratic to Republican for the 1st time in 20 years and put Gingrich in the Speaker’s chair.
By 1995, Speaker Gingrich told the author of “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life” that “one of the most painful things I’ve ever been through in my whole life” was “trying to understand the degree to which behaviors that I thought were totally appropriate were destructive.”
For her part, Marianne told Sheehy “I would have to honestly say that Newt has worked very, very hard to change.”
“Since Newt became a national celebrity, he has no shortage of female admirers,” Sheehy wrote. “Callista Bisek, a former aide in Congressman Steve Gunderson’s office … has been a favorite breakfast companion.”
His divorce petition was filed in August 1999. By then, he had been disciplined by the House over ethics accusations, and the Republican Party had big losses in the 1998 midterms. Gingrich left public life, and private citizen Gingrich’s second divorce was acrimonious with roughly 60 pleadings and counter-pleadings in Cobb County George Superior Court.
In the process, his ongoing extramarital affair with 33-year-old Callista was made public, and when his second divorce from Marianne was complete in 2000, Newt, 56, quickly married his pretty breakfast companion, 23 years his junior.
“Newt always wanted to be somebody,” his second wife said in 2010. But one thing the public spectacle of his personal upheavals do not make clear is whether, even now, he has settled on who that somebody is.
Bonnie Goldstein was a coat-check girl in the 60s, a hippie in the 70s, a private eye in the 80s, a US Senate investigator in the early 1990s and TV news producer in the late 90s. During the first millennial decade, she was an Internet journalist and meddler in the lives of her adult children. She is married to the novelist James Grady. Follow her on Twitter: @KickedByAnAngel