Interview Kathleen GingrichQ: Had you known the McPhersons? Were they close to your family?
K. Gingrich: No, not really. I was not, I've said it so many times --I was married on a Saturday, and I left him on a Monday. Yes. I was living right next to my mother. I had an apartment, and let me tell you this, I wanted to break our engagement and my mother said, 'You can't because it's going to be in the paper tomorrow.' Oooh, oooh. So, I mean, my father had just been killed a few years before and things were never the same without my Dad. But anyhow, I moved back with my mother. And then I found out I was pregnant and then the McPhersons --who are really nice country people-- let me move back up with them and Newt came home in August and I told him that I wanted to divorce. So he went back. He was in Merchant Marines and he went back and I filed for my divorce. I got my divorce and I was still with my mother.
Q: Newt never actually grew up then with the McPhersons?
K. Gingrich: No. He grew up with Bob and I.
Q: How did Bob make the adjustment to having a child?
K. Gingrich: You see we went together for a year. So he was around him all that time. And I can only remember one thing: It was Sunday and we were sitting in the living room and Newt had got new white shoes, high tops, and he wanted my attention and I wasn't giving it to him and he came over and he kicked me in the shins. And he got cracked across the rear end and Bob said, 'You won't have that again. Watch out.' [Laughs]
Q: He must have been tough to discipline as a child.
K. Gingrich: No. That's the only thing that stands out in my mind, you know, that Bob ever did. Newt's [friends] maybe got in trouble.
Q: How do you think Bob influenced Newt?
K. Gingrich: Just by being around him. Like he'll say at different times that he was so grateful to Bob because he knew that he didn't have the money, but his dad wanted him to have the Encyclopedia Britannica, was it? One of those two big ones at the time, and you paid so much a month, you know, on it. His dad wanted him to see all of the world and thought that that was one way he would learn. And he did. He used them. He got it for Christmas. It was 1957. And Newtie would say things like that. And he realizes what he was touched by Bob. And he told me once that he and Jimmy, his best friend, were afraid of Bob. And I told Bob, he laughed. They were afraid because he is firm. A quiet type person. Newt can stay out there and talk more than he talks to me in a week. He's just not a talker.
Jim Tilton's wife or somebody told us once that they had suggested to Newt that he read "The Great Santini" or see the movie because, you know, it was about this relationship, the Pat Conroy thing. I'm sure you may or may not have seen the movie. But the book was about the relationship between the son and his father who was a military officer, and very disciplinary.
Q: Was your mom an influence also on Newt?
K. Gingrich: Oh, my mother was. She was a former schoolteacher, and she had him writing and reading before he went to school. I mean he was her life. You'll love this. One Christmas, my mother didn't have much money. She bought him a leather jacket. Beautiful thing. He decided he wanted to be a zebra. So he went and painted stripes all over the jacket. My mother nearly had fits. [Laughs] But he did it. He wanted to be a zebra. I don't know if ever got the paint off or not.
Q: Tell me about the zoo. He apparently loved the zoo, still does.
K. Gingrich: Oh, yeah, yeah. He really does. That's what he really wanted to be --a curator. God, he has his own zoo now. [Laughs]
Q: Snakes. Did he have snakes when he was a kid?
K. Gingrich: Well [laughs] Yes, he did. But not for long cause I can't stand them. And I can see him to this day sitting on the back steps, holding the snake's head like this and feeding it hardboiled eggs. That's what he fed the doggone thing. And I don't know if it was that snake or another one that he brought in. And me and my mother were sharing the bedroom because you only could get so many bedrooms. And he put the jar down without the lid on it. And my mother was taking a nap. When she awoke the snakes was coming up the jar. And she shrieked and I ran for Newtie because I knew. So he was told, 'You're going to have to take that snake out and put it back where you got it.' Well, he didn't want to because it was cold and he was afraid the snake would freeze. So he went crying up the hill and he dug a hole and put the snake down the hole and covered it up, so it wouldn't freeze. But I don't think he's ever forgiven me. That I insisted no snakes. He loves them. He really does.
Q: There was the story about how he somehow ended up in Harrisburg at the zoo.
K. Gingrich: He was to go to the library. He was ten years old. And instead of going there, he went to City Hall. And he had this list with him of the animals, what they ate, what they cost, everything you'd want to know about that animal. And apparently he stayed quite awhile and they sent him over to Paul Walker, who ran the biggest newspaper in Harrisburg. He's dead now. But he saw the potential in Newtie. And Newtie said, 'Would you run this in the paper for me?' And Paul looked at him and he said, 'Yes, I can if you write an article about it.' And Newtie said, 'Well, I don't have a typewriter.' And Paul said, 'There's one over there.' And it was one of these old relic typewriters. And Newtie wrote the article and he and Paul stayed friends till Paul died. He never visited and didn't go see Paul.
Q: Ten years old. Help me to understand the circumstance where a ten year-old child would stand up to City Hall.
K. Gingrich: I don't know. I really don't know. They sent him home in a state car, I remember that. And with a big, thick law book. I don't know whatever happened to that.
Q: So you had this boy who wanders off and goes to City Hall. Do you remember breaking the news to the Colonel, to Bob, that Newt's been ...
K. Gingrich: Yes and he wrote back, 'Keep that kid out of the paper.' [Laughs] Keep the kid out of the paper. That is easy to say.
Q: One of the things that you can't help but observe if you read about or follow Newt is the sound sense of his own destiny, his own place in history. He is a guy who is certain that he is going to have effects. And apparently felt that way for a long time. Who influenced him in that way? Who made him feel really special?
K. Gingrich: Well, I'd like to say 'me,' but he was special. I mean, things that he did around the house. At Fort Riley, I remember I would wash dishes and he'd dry and we'd talk. And he'd talk all around the world. And then he informed me, his mother, of all these things because he'd read. He read constantly.
Q: The Verdun trip. Does it strike you that that could actually have been a life changing moment --or did it seem so at the time?
K. Ginigrich: No, no, I think it was a big thing for him. That's when he realized that politics could do a lot without a war. That's the horrible, horrible thing. This great big, enormous light building. There were two lawyers and someone had scratched the black paint off the window, so that you could look in. And what did you see? Bones. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bones. And that's where they were found among the battlefield and they didn't know what to do with them so they put them there.
Q: Would you like to see him run for President?
K. Gingrich: No. I think he should stick it out as speaker for a while. He wanted that so badly and now he got it. Now he should stay there. There's things to learn, I'm sure. And if he wants to run the next time, I'll be all for it. Cause he'll be fifty-three, I think. I'm not so good at math. He's plenty young.
Q: In high school, he was the oldest son, your only son -- did he have girlfriends?
K. Gingrich: I would say more that he had friends. He tutored. He tutored one of the loveliest girls I've ever seen. She looked like Ava Gardner. But normally he didn't. In fact, he didn't learn to drive for quite awhile because while someone else drove he could read his books. He's a constant reader. Say, a book a week even now with all that he has to do, he gets to it.
Q: And a good student too, I gather.
K. Gingrich: Not especially. Um um. That's what everyone thinks, he had to be an "A" student. He liked tests. Take a test anytime. But he had a A/B and B average. He was on the National Honor List Society. He was in that. And Time magazine had some contest. He won that. There was another one that they had and he won that. But he would never tell us until he would come home and say, 'I won this for Time' or 'I did something for Time.' He always kept it to himself.
Q: There's that famous period in adolescents' lives when they feel rebellious. I wonder how Newt showed his rebellion.
K. Gingrich: I don't remember that he ever rebelled against anything. He was just a good kid. Not that he didn't have trouble. There was one time in France, maybe his 16th birthday, and he wanted to have a party so we said, 'Sure.' Well, the rug was green and this gang came. We went to bed. I had to drive Bob in to work the next morning and coming down the steps he looked over and he says, 'God!' You couldn't see that green rug at all with all the puddles from them running in and out and through the windows and all that. And he said, 'You tell him to have that room back in order by the time I come home.' So I had to run some of the kids home. And Newtie got it clean.
Q: Do you remember, when you moved down to Georgia and you were in Fort Benning? And Newt falls in love except he falls in love with his math teacher, right? Do you recollect when you found out about that?
K. Gingrich: I do because Bob said, 'Uh uh.' I mean there was too much riding on Newt even then as to what he was going to be, what he was going to do. And marrying his math teacher was not one of them. So he didn't bring her home right away. And she could talk back to Bob. And then some. And he didn't care for anything. But then later on she had Kathy and it clicked and they've become friends.
Q: How did you hear about it? Did Newt tell you?
K. Gingrich: Uh hmm. Newtie told me. And I knew there was gonna be trouble. [laughs] I just knew it. And there was. We didn't go to the wedding because Bob would not go to the wedding. He said he would drive me there and wait for me. But I couldn't go in that church without Bob. I couldn't do it . And the children that night brought me my corsage. Newtie just said that to me, that he knew I was coming, he just knew I was coming to the wedding. But I didn't make it.
But I am sorry that they divorced. I really am. Because she did put out a lot of things to help Newtie. She tutored him, she took care of the children. They managed apartments in Atlanta. And she didn't have nice furniture. She has some now. But she didn't then. I remember going to New Orleans and the end of the couch had bricks underneath it to keep it up. And we know what that's about because Bob and I went through the same thing.
But we often wonder if she would have lost some weight if it would have helped. She was quite heavy, later. But, you don't know what goes on behind locked doors. But when he called me, it was either a divorce or he was going to have a breakdown. Things had gotten that rough with him. And I know it wasn't true --that so many have repeated--that he went to the hospital where she had just been operated on for cancer with a notebook, a list of things that he had given her. Newtie wouldn't do something like that. He just wouldn't. And he said to me, 'Mother, they never say how many times I took the girls in to see their mother. You know, that would be too nice.' I know that he didn't do that.
Q: Since he's been Speaker of the House, he's gotten so much attention since he is clearly the fellow driving and animating the debate in Washington. He has also been a lightening rod for so many people. They depict him as a hard-hearted, meanspirited - blow hard basically, and arrogant and all of that. How does that ring with you?
K. Gingrich: It doesn't. Because I don't think he's any of those things. They said that the women don't like him because he won't fight their causes for them. I don't know what their causes are, but I don't know. But no, Newt has a heart as big as an apron. I always tell it to them, standing in the kitchen window, watching him walk down to school. He'd go down to the corner and one of the little neighbor's boy's kite got caught up a tree. And to this day, I can see Newtie laying down his books, climbin' up the tree to get the kite, bringin' it down to the little boy, and off he went to school. How many kids would have done that? They'd have just stood by and said, 'Too bad.' But no, they don't know him. Or they're jealous. After all, he did come up pretty fast.
Q: Sure enough did. Did you and the Colonel ever have any aspirations for Newt? Did it ever seem that he might go into the military?
K. Gingrich: He's very flat-footed and he's very near-sighted. I don't know what they would have done with him in the military. I can't see him hike. Plus at that time they had their second baby and it was pretty rough. But now, Bob might have, but he also knew Newt's standards too. So because of his eyes and his feet, you know, he wouldn't have made it.