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The Long March of Newt Gingrich
Good Newt, Bad Newt
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Not long, as it turned out. Jackie Gingrich went to Washington with her newly elected husband, but she did not return for his second term. She says that Gingrich walked out on her in the spring of 1980. That fall, while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery for uterine cancer, he appeared at her bedside with a yellow legal pad outlining the details for their divorce. The next year, he married his current wife, Marianne Ginther, a small-town Ohio woman fifteen years younger than Jackie, who was then a personnel clerk with the Secret Service.

"I was very fond of Jackie, and I felt sorry for the whole way that it turned out for her," Shapard says. " could have written that down before it happened, and many people did."

It's hard now for Jackie Gingrich to talk about her life with Newt. Her daughters are grown, and though she talks with them regularly by phone, Jackie lives alone in Carrollton, still teaching, and tutoring at night. She no longer has any contact with Gingrich whom she refers to as "the congressman." "I do not talk to him, he does not talk to me, and I do not even get junk mail from the office."

In Washington, the second Mrs. Gingrich bristles at the suggestion that she was just the new model that Gingrich traded in for when it became convenient . "He's a public figure and people will attack him," Marianne says. "He's just got to take it and keep moving."

In fact, she adds, she and Gingrich spent long hours discussing his troubled previous marriage, which was years in the undoing. "I've seen bills where they both went to marriage counseling before they split up, before she got ill. The documentation is there."

"When you're the second wife and you're trying to uphold what you did or who you are, you'll say those things" is Jackie's only comment.

Asked about his divorce by The Atlanta Constitution , Newt Gingrich said, "Even if I had been sensitive, it would've been a mess."

It is not easy to become the most disliked man in Congress in the space of three terms, but Newt Gingrich was no ordinary congressman. Even before he got to Capitol Hill, when he was making his first run in 1974, he said, "I intend to go up there and kick the system over, not try to change it." It was not your usual sort of campaign promise, but then, Gingrich did not keep his word on it. When he arrived in Washington, he ignored the traditional course for freshmen congressmen of quietly taking backseat and doing party and committee grunt work while learning the ropes. Instead, he openly cultivated the press and, of course, he developed his romance with C-SPAN.

Nothing was so sweet a piece of happenstance as the arrival of Gingrich and C-SPAN in the House of Representatives at the same moment. They were made for each other. A Washington newsman, Brian Lamb, had had the idea of bringing the proceedings of both houses of Congress to American television viewers as a nonprofit public service. Congressional leaders, accustomed to the clubby seclusion of Congress and frankly skeptical about the television appeal of their work, were doubtful --particularly since Lamb wanted gavel-to-gavel coverage --but House Speaker Tip O'Neill eventually gave the go-ahead.

Gingrich, the new face, quickly recognized an opportunity. The House, which limits the length of debate over legislation, has a rule allowing so-called special orders --permission to give lengthy speeches at the end of each legislative day. These have long been a means by which congressman could read into the Congressional Record various matters of importance to their constituents, usually matters of trivia. But Gingrich, concerned less with the Record than with the potential television audience, began to use special orders regularly as his platform for advancing ideas and, especially, for attacking the Democratic majority.

At first, his approach gave the impression that he was a brave young crusader, taking on the opposition in heated floor encounters, but, in truth, most of his diatribes were delivered before a virtually empty House. When, in 1984, he escalated his attack on Democrats to the point of questioning their patriotism-- accusing them of being "blind to Communism" --Speaker O'Neill lost his cool. In a legendary head-to-head encounter on the floor of the House, the Speaker blasted Gingrich : "You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my thirty-two years in Congress."

The end of the story, however, was a Gingrich coup: Trent Lott, who was then minority whip, protested O'Neill's attack on Gingrich as being out of order, and O'Neill's remarks were stricken from the record. It was the first such rebuke of a Speaker of the House since 1798. Gingrich was famous.

Gingrich gradually developed a political manifesto, a sort of New Age Reaganism, and called his blueprint for a new America the "Conservative Opportunity Society" (as opposed, of course, to the Liberal Welfare State.) By 19(86?), although he held no committee chair or leadership position, Newt Gingrich was named by The Almanac of American Politics as one of the twenty-six most influential members of the House.

His recognition and his gathering power were not the result of the legislation he drafted or helped to pass, which, in fact, was negligible. And he was scorned by detractors for some of his wackier notions --which ranged from the off-the-wall (plans for statehood in outer space) to potential political dynamite (he once proposed abolishing Social Security and replacing it with mandatory I.R.A.'s).

Still, Gingrich's accessibility, and his willingness (and ability) to glibly hold forth on his various notions at a moment's notice, gave him a reputation as a brainiac, a kind of walking lecture, and won him some fans within the more activist branch of the Republican Party. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, for one, is as impressed with Gingrich as ever. "In terms of the sweep of intellect and the energy to drive those intellectual conceptualizations, he has no equal."

For Gingrich, politics is his profession, his sport, and his hobby, and his private life is pretty dull. He and Marianne have never been regulars on the party circuit, they have no children, and they have no pets --because Newt is partial to reptiles. (They bought a boa constrictor at one point, which Newt then donated to the zoo; he wanted to keep it, but Marianne knew they wouldn't be able to find neighbors willing to boa-sit when the Gingriches were out of town.) Marianne says she has only one friend in Washington, and much prefers her life back in Georgia: "I find Washington an extremely cynical, transitional, unstable place --it's not an easy place."

But Newt thrived in the bright light of the recognition he was receiving, to the point, some would suggest, where his ego became a trifle overfed. Even for a town not populated by self-effacing people, Gingrich has said some pretty memorable things, such as his observation to The Atlantic that his attendance at a National Press Club dinner "made no sense except that the news media could see me walking through the crowds." Still high from his success at the '84 convention, when he managed to persuade Reagan's speech writers to include the term "opportunity society" in the president's address, he told The Washington Post , "I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I'm doing it. Ronald Reagan just used the term "opportunity society" and that didn't exist four years ago. I just had breakfast with Darman and Stockman because I'm unavoidable. I represent real power."

He was already a favorite target of the Democrats, and such pronouncements made him even easier prey. "Newt Gingrich can unify the Democratic Party better than anyone in America," says Democratic whip Tony Coelho of his longtime opponent. In 1985, some Democratic staff members assembled a collection of Gingrich's quota, and distributed it under the title Talking Heads-A Newt Gingrich Chrestomathy . In May, a sequel (Son of Talking Heads) was produced, and included this Gingrich gem: "Vision must lead to words. Our vision cannot exist if we cannot say it. Strategy must lead to policies, to strategies, and they must lead to structures for implementation. Operations must be definable tasks for which we can hold people accountable. The tactics on a daily basis must be a doctrine that fits our vision of strategy."

The passage was headlined: "Newt Sun T'Zu."

Gingrich had taken on Democrats almost from the moment he hit town, but in May 1988 he went after the big fish: the Speaker of the House. After spending months preparing his case against Wright, he filed charges of ethics violations with the House Committee on Standards of Official conduct.

It was a lonely course; while some Republicans privately cheered Gingrich's move, none would join him in those first months as he fought to bring his complaint. The Speaker of the House --any Speaker-- is a force not to be trifled with, and Wright was held to be particularly vindictive. Also, many Republicans were (and are) unsure about the propriety of making ethics a partisan issue; beyond that, there is the "glass house" syndrome in Congress, a work unto itself where ethically questionable behavior is sometimes explicitly within the rules. But Gingrich was determined. It was, politically, the perfect moment to attack Wright; the protracted Ed Meese scandal promised to give Democrats the sleaze issue for their convention, and Gingrich's assault blunted that.


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