Gingrich began running for something almost as soon as he arrived at West Georgia College to teach history in 1970.
“He was sort of universally considered a character at West Georgia, smart but not very deep,” said New Republic columnist Ed Kilgore, a Georgia Republican-turned-Democrat who has known Gingrich for decades. “He clearly loved the professor’s persona and grand ideas, but he was more nakedly ambitious than anything. You always had this odd combination of Boss Tweed and Metternich.”
Gingrich lost two campaigns for Congress running as a moderate, environmentalist Republican. Then, in 1978, he ran for a third time as a full-throated movement conservative, attacking his Democratic opponent as a big-government liberal and railing against welfare.
He won and moved his family to Washington. Soon his marriage fell apart — the first of two divorces, each with accusations of infidelity.
Jackie Gingrich had campaigned tirelessly for her husband. The split-up came as a shock to their friends.
“When he came to see us that weekend, I stayed up with Newt all night and we talked,” Harwell, the pastor’s wife, said of a 1980 visit by Gingrich in which he told his friends of the divorce. “He told me he did not need a mother any longer, that she was holding him back.” She and her husband were offended. “We’d had a very close relationship with Newt, but after that the friendship ended.”
Gingrich remembers long talks with Harwell and said he would not have made such statements. He would not discuss reasons for the breakup, and a call to his ex-wife’s home was returned by a Gingrich campaign spokesman, who said she had no comment. But their daughter said it was her mother’s decision to end the increasingly troubled marriage.
“What she tells me was that she asked for the divorce because she thought that was what was best for her and her daughters at that time,” Jackie Cushman said. “Was it hard on my mother? Absolutely, but we all moved on.”
In recent years, her parents have attended the same family dinners for their grandchildren, Cushman said, and her mother often baby-sits when she is off campaigning for her father.
Gingrich was remarried six months after the divorce was final, to Marianne Ginther, an Ohio woman 15 years his junior. They divorced in 2000 after he began a relationship with Callista Bisek, a Hill staffer. He married the third Mrs. Gingrich shortly after his second divorce.
But it was always in Washington that Gingrich created the greatest convulsions. Weeks after his 1978 election to the House, he began trumpeting long-simmering accusations of corruption against Charles Diggs, a Detroit Democrat.