The Inner Quest of Newt Gingrichby Gail Sheehy
Vanity Fair September 1995
From the cauldron of his childhood -- the father who abandoned him, the manic depressive mother who loved him too much, the stepfather whose anger shaped the family -- Newt Gingrich emerged with a heroic need that became his mission. Talking to his inner circle of family, friends, and associates, and to the Speaker himself, GAIL SHEEHY learns the details of Newt's wars, his women, and his contract with himself.
"I think you can write a psychological profile of me that says I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to." Newt Gingrich is coaching me on writing about himself. Ten years ago he was arguably the most disliked member of Congress. Today he is holding forth from the veranda of the office of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, looking down on the Capitol Mall as if it were the great lawn of his own vast estate.
Newt Gingrich is the sonic boom of a presidential election season --a loud noise generated by a media meteor moving at supersonic speed. In June he declared that all presidential candidates would have to adjust to a world in which his Congress is "relatively more important than the White House." True, he has shaken up the jowly House and led the Republicans out of the wilderness, but he remains an untested national commodity. Maybe that explains the big presidential tease, which will continue as long as he can hold the spotlight. "If there were a large enough vacuum, then obviously I'm willing to consider it," he said in July.
No, no, Newt! plead many of his ardent supporters and strategists. But other observers say the G.O.P --a party which, in columnist Joe Klein's words, "can't resist a tent show"-- won't be able to resist "drafting" Newt. Meanwhile, he is honing his evangelical skills on a 25-city P.R campaign bankrolled with a loan from Rupert Murdoch and designed to sell his new book To Renew America --and himself.
But his greatest presidential stumbling block may be right under his nose. At home, Newt's second wife, Marianne Ginther Gingrich, tells me she doesn't see herself in the First Lady's job. "Watching Hillary has just been a horrible experience," commiserates Marianne. "Hillary sticking her neck out is not working."
What happens if Newt runs?, I ask.
"He can't do it without me," she replies. "I told him if I'm not in agreement, fine, it's easy" --she giggles at her naughtiness. "I just go on the air the next day, and I undermine everything...I don't want him to be president and I don't think he should be."
"Right now, the presidency is not a single person. It's not so much what he'd be doing. It's what I'd be doing."
On the day of our interview, Newt looks relaxed. It's Sunday, Marianne is far away, and he can sit back, roll up his sleeves, scratch his arms, even let his belly flop over his belt. He has agreed to see me after months of my petitions because he knows I have done 70 interviews with his family, friends, and political operatives. As I told his press secretary, Tony Blankley, there are many conflicting stories about Newt and I wanted the man himself to sort them out. Newt Gingrich is his own creation, and I was fascinated by how this extraordinary person developed.
Newt's friends have told me that his primary references are movies. They have informed his heroic ideal. "When he watches John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart on TV, he lives out these movies," says Melvin Steely, a former colleague at West Georgia College.
So we start with films, namely Rob Roy.
"I liked half of Rob Roy," the Speaker says, "but The Last of the Mohicans is a much more romantic movie...Rob Roy is much too harsh...The best of America is romantic realism. It leads us to be permanently frustrated with ourselves because we set an impossibly high ideal."
It is no small coincidence that the medieval hero Robert the Bruce came to our attention as a character in Braveheart during Newt's big summer. Gingrich has long enshrined the legendary Scot in his pantheon of psychic heroes.
In the whole history of Europe, writes one historian, it would be hard to find a more "lunatic venture" than the Bruce's. For eight solid years, in a quest that Professor G. W. S. Barrow termed "the private revolution of an ambitious man," this weakling son of a tyrant king warred to restore the Scottish monarchy.
"I'm a mythical person," says Newt, no stranger to revolutions. "I had a period of thinking that I would have been called 'Newt the McPherson,' as in Robert the Bruce." He is referring to his childhood, when he strongly identified with his biological father, Newton McPherson.
"Robert the Bruce," Newt continues, "is the guy who would not, could not, avoid fighting...He carried the burden of being Scotland." Like the Bruce, Newt feels he must carry the burden of being his nation.
"What makes me unusually intense is that I personalize the pain of war, the pain of children being killed, the pain of a 16-year-old who has been permanently cheated by his school and cannot read."
"Are you an emotional person?"
"Oh yeah, very emotional," Newt declares.
"Compassionate?" I venture.
"I'm not sure what the word means." Newt frowns. "I'm enraged that a 16-year-old has been cheated their entire life by a system that has paid $7,000 a year to educate them and did nothing for its money. Now, is that compassion, or is it just rage?"
Newt --who once called himself "a psychodrama living out a fantasy"-- is growing interested in our dialogue. He props his hands, as acquisitive and chubby as a baby's, on top of his head as I warily approach the issue of his patrimony.
"Let me back up for a second," he interrupts. "I've never done this before. It's totally dangerous. But I like the way you're approaching this...I think it is fair to say, if you want to write a psychological piece, that part of my life has been trying to live up to a standard of toughness and responsibility...My relatives were either farmers, steelworkers, or industrial laborers. My uncle Cal was a highway-construction foreman who was enormously tough. He was shot and chased the guy...He couldn't catch him because of the bullet in his leg."
He unfurls his life story like a myth.
"My father grew up as a very angry person. When he signed up for the navy, the recruiting officer said, 'Why did you fill out your application wrong?' He said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'You put your grandmother's name in where your mother's name should be.' He found out that he had been born out of wedlock. They never told him. Talk about being outraged!"
The saga continues: "Big Newt was physically enormous. Six foot three, and could use a nine-pound sledgehammer with one hand. I'd say from the time he was 16 to 35 he was in bar fights...My mother was very frightened of him. So she decides to file for divorce. He tries to talk her out of it, fails, scares her even more, so she divorces him and then marries Bob Gingrich, who is also adopted...So that's the background, and people assume I'm some right wing, out-of-touch Neanderthal who doesn't get it. I mean, I'm adopted! Both of my fathers are adopted! I mean, give me a break!"
Confusion over his identity was a recurrent theme in Newt's boyhood. "I did not use the word 'stepfather' until I was talking to Marianne in 1982," he says. "I had a very confused blockage in sorting out the relationships."
"A heck of a mess when you think about it," Gingrich's mother, Kit, says reviewing the past. Big Newt, having been abandoned by his real father, Robert Kerstetter, was taken in by Newton and Hattie Belle McPherson and raised in a household where his real mother, Louise Kepner, was passed off as his sister. Bob Gingrich was a foster child, not adopted until he was 16. It sounds like a Faulkner saga. In Pennsylvania.
A painful turn came for Newt at the age of 16, when he and his family returned to the U.S. from Europe, where his stepfather had been stationed in the army.
"Your stepmother remembers you coming back furious," I say. "You went to her and said, 'Why did my father take my name from me?'"
Anger flashes in Newt's face as he takes a sip from his dinosaur mug. "I was furious because I figured out in Europe that my real father had agreed to allow me to be adopted."
Kit Gingrich has already told me the story of Newt's adoption. According to Kit, Big Newt, who made little effort to see the boy, called her when Newt was three years old. "His new wife was pregnant," says Kit. "He said that if I would drop the past four months of child support payments, Bob could adopt Newtie. Isn't it awful, a man willing to sell off his own son?"
Newt's stepmother, Marcella McPherson, recalls that after Newt's return from Europe the tormented adolescent asked, "'Why can't I come live with you?' He didn't want to get out of my husband's sight."
Newt grows pensive as he thinks back to the summer of 1960. He was 17, rebellious, searching. "Wandering around Harrisburg," he says, "I remember thinking that in the Scottish tradition...I would have been mythically called the McPherson. As in Robert the Bruce."
"When did Big Newt decide he wanted to get you back?"
"He never wanted to get me back."
If the McPherson myth offered Newt solace, growing up Gingrich brought more pain. All his efforts and affectations never seemed to please his stepfather, Colonel Bob Gingrich.
"You know the John Wayne movie Hondo, where I think it's a six-year-old boy who can't swim well? Wayne picks him up, throws him in the lake, and watches him thrashing around? The mother comes over, crying. And Wayne says, 'He had to learn.' In my childhood, that made sense."
Bob Gingrich turned 70 this year. He graduated from high school in 1943. "That class was allowed to leave school to go into the military, but Bob couldn't get in," Newt's old neighbor Elise Huss told me. "Some dumb thing. He couldn't get in anywhere -- even tried the merchant marines. Then when all Bob's friends came back from war, darned if they didn't draft Bob."
"He had a very sad experience," Newt acknowledges. "He had a punctured eardrum. It made him even more bitter, because he was ridiculed. 'How can you be a 4-F? You're the basketball star!' Then he gets out of the military and works as a railroad engineer...My father is a bread-truck driver. This is the background of hardworking, lower-middle-class, industrial people. I think this is helpful in understanding my background."
"But you," I point out, "had a nose in a book and were always spouting big words."
"My grandmother Daugherty was a teacher," says Newt. "She immersed me in reading... I had grown up in a very adult world... A lot of my childhood was spent near very adult, late-middle-aged people. So I think in that sense I became big words."
Indeed, words became his weapons. But Kit says that when Newt attempted to outsmart his stepfather with the things he had read, the colonel would order him to go back to his corner and his books. "Bob would never give in," Kit recalls.
"I think it's fair to say I lived a long period of my life autonomously," Newt tells me. "I was never alone, but I was lonely." Animals became his friends; he collected lizards and snakes and went hunting for fossils. The fact that young Newt --like Ronald Reagan-- could barely see may have exaggerated his tendency to live inside his own imagination. "I was nearsighted --something I didn't realize until I was about 12," he discloses. "There was a sense of shyness because you literally couldn't see people. You couldn't interact."
Around this time he had a marvelous awakening, the kind he had read about. "There's a moment," Newt says, "where I realized, I can be a leader."
"I went to a double feature of African movies...It was summertime. I came out at about four in the afternoon, and next to the movie theater was a sign that said CITY HALL. So I stood there, having been exhilarated by these two African movies --one of which I think was called Trader Horn. I decided that Harrisburg needed a zoo, and this was the right moment to do something...So I go into city hall." And so it began. The local cheesebox of a movie theater became his personal Cinema Paradiso, where he watched John Wayne kill the bad guys "four or five times in a row, over and over." At the movies he discovered that you can draw inspiration from heroes, that you can create a story for yourself to star in.
Skipping adolescence, he accelerated into a pseudo middle age. "I was a 50-year-old at 9," he says. "I had imprinted John Wayne in his mid-40s as my model of behavior." One of his all-time favorite Wayne movies was Sands of Iwo Jima, in which the star plays Sergeant Stryker, the friendless, combat-hardened unit leader of a Marine rifle squad who makes a victim of a new recruit.
"I embarrassed my father," the recruit confides to a buddy. "I wasn't tough enough for him. Too Soft. 'No guts' was the phrase he used. Now Stryker, he's the type of man my father wanted me to be."
Earlier the Speaker made a point about his fathers that makes me think of Stryker.
"They're both angry. They both served in the military. They're both physically strong. They both believe in a very male kind of toughness. They're both totalitarian. Not much difference between them."
Did your big words impress Bob Gingrich?
"No. I don't think I ever impressed him...He and I fought from the time he adopted me until I was 19. It wasn't tough. It was just a fact."
Despite the fact that one of Newt Gingrich's forebears fought in the Civil War on the Yankee side, everyone thinks that the Georgia congressman is a dyed-in-the-wool son of a Dixie. He is not. He is rootless, raised on a drifting landscape of army bases here and abroad and in a blue-collar backwater in Pennsylvania called Hummelstown. His family lived in an apartment which looked out on the town square.
During my stay in Pennsylvania, the Gingrich family plans a meeting at a favorite cafe, and I am invited. Kit Gingrich sits surrounded by her three girls: Roberta, 45, brown-haired and maternal, works for the government bureaucracy as a state supervisor for home-economics education. Snow, pretty and girlish at 47, is stuck in a dead-end state job. (The family is not reluctant to discuss her calls to Newt to find out what he can do for her.) Candace, 29, an out lesbian, has become a national figure in the gay-rights movement and has recently signed with Scribner to do a book which will trace her brother's transformation from "eccentric libertarian...to an arch-conservative."
Kit Gingrich is 69 now, with aqueous eyes and anxiety crocheted between her brows. At times it seems she cannot quite fathom everything that has happened. But life began to shatter her expectations early. When she was 14, her dad --who worked for the railroad-- was killed in a violent accident. "Things for me went downhill. My mother had a breakdown. She wiped out. It didn't last long."
Her father's insurance had expired, and there was little money, so Kit took a job cleaning house. When her mom started dating again, Kit says, she was left to her own devices and took up with brawling Big Newt.
Candace tells me one version of the circumstances surrounding her mother's marriage at the age of 16. "She had to leave high school for being pregnant. I'm not sure if she was, you know, forced, or if it was a family decision or not, but I know that she later got her G.E.D."
Taking a drag from a Benson & Hedges and sipping black coffee, Kit contradicts her daughter's version of her marriage by rattling off dates ("Married the 12th of September and had Newtie the 17th of June"). On the day of the wedding she and Big Newt sneaked off and tied the knot early in the morning. She wore a dress of gray velvet. "I didn't want anyone to come," she has admitted. "My mother made me go through with the wedding," she tells me. After the marriage, Big Newt quickly joined the navy. Kit had already moved in with the senior McPhersons. "I just lived off his parents," she says. Once Newt was born, she filed for divorce. "When Newtie came, I went back to my mother," Kit tells me. "But I never hid."
When Bob Gingrich, now suffering from emphysema, enters the cafe he stands back from our table, scowling, working the tobacco wadded inside his cheek. His face is as sharp as a knife blade. He greets no one.
"Sit down," Candace suggests. She has told me that Bob is "your typical military father. It was difficult to disagree with him. But he has really mellowed."
"Some people thought I was too rough with Newt," admits Bob, who wound up as a colonel in the army that had initially rejected him. "I just wanted him to get out of the house and earn a living." He says he never hugged Newt. "You don't do that with boys. I didn't even do it with my girls." He looks at his wife. "When was the last time I told you I loved you?"
"That's a good question," Kit comments.
"If I tell you once, that's all that's necessary," he announces to the family. "If it ever changes, I'll let you know."
The colonel's word was law in the Gingrich household. He refused to allow his children to learn to drive. (Newt's first wife, Jackie, taught him how.) There was a stiff price for breaking the rules.
When the family was living in France, in a town on the Loire called Beaugency, about 20 miles from Orleans, curfew in the household was 11 p.m. --even though Newt was 15 years old. One night, the boy and a friend stayed out in town until two a.m. M.P.'s dragged the boys home.
"I took him inside," Bob proudly recalls, "grabbed him by the lapels, and I smashed him against the wall. We were face-to-face. Newt was bug-eyed. Then I dropped him. There was no need to shout. He didn't do it again."
There was little political discussion in the Gingrich household; Kit can't remember if they even voted in the presidential elections during Newt's childhood, but Bob Gingrich knows exactly how he feels about the guys in Washington. Once mistaken for a senator by a gas-station attendant, he retorted, "I don't slop at the public trough."
The Gingrich family does not appear to have been involved in the volunteerism championed by Newt to replace government bureaucracies. Bob Gingrich is a Mason and an Elk. Kit had church activities. "But as far as charitable work goes, I can't think of anything," Candace says. I ask if Newt volunteered for any sort of social service.
"He baby-sat," his mother announces. Roberta adds that Newt's high school in Columbus, Georgia, canvassed once a year for the March of Dimes. That comment brought forth the Baker High School yearbook.
Surprisingly, the boy in the bottle-thick glasses with a plaid shirt and plastic pocket protector was only a runner-up as a National Merit Scholar. He did make the debate team, but, according to Bob Gingrich, "he wasn't an A student...He wasn't the class pride." Kit claims that Newt's I.Q measured in the 120s
Was Newt religious as a kid?, I ask.
"Nope," says Kit.
Snow intercedes protectively. "He went to church."
"That doesn't mean anything," Kit says, dismissing the subject.
Bob Gingrich says his stepson never discussed joining the military. "Without corrective lenses, he couldn't see across the room," the colonel sneers. "Flattest feet I've ever seen. He's physically incapable of doing military service."
As part of his conservative stance, Newt Gingrich aims to impose order with a vision like a surreal projection of his own past; a family structure as strict as Bob Gingrich's military hierarchy and an educational system that, as he outlines for me, rewards high-school girls who graduate as virgins. In To Renew America, he suggests that one could communicate values to children by simply getting out "the Boy Scout or Girl Scout handbook, or go look at Reader's Digest and The Saturday Evening Post from around 1955." In his dream of perfection, as marketable and soothing as Father of the Bride, there are none of the ordinary dramas of family life. But Kit Gingrich is not reluctant to discuss the extraordinary circumstances she has survived. Her life has been defined by unpredictabilities. As it happens, she is manic-depressive.
I had manic-depressive illness," she tells me when we sit down alone. "Oh sure." She has lived a life of moving "to another post and another doctor and more medicine...You name it," she says, referring to all her various doctors' medications, "and I was on it."
In 1982, when a new doctor took her off all medication, Kit says, she "almost fell apart." According to Candace, her mother suddenly began driving all over the place "like this world traveler." Bob Gingrich was furious and wanted her tranquilized again. When she was taken off her medicine, she saw Bob entirely differently, she says. Bob is a tyrant, she admits. No question about it.
"Newt Gingrich is playing out a personal agenda in a public forum, and it threatens the safety, health, and security of our most vulnerable people," says Mary Kahn. "And that's what frightens me about him. Someday he might be president." Kahn, a reporter who covered Newt in the mid-70s, also spent time with him socially until the early 80s as the wife of Chip Kahn, Gingrich's former campaign manager.
The personal agenda of which Mary Kahn speaks is deeper that any philosophical or material odyssey. As the Speaker himself said, "I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to." Inspired by the books and movies that have been his guides, Newt Gingrich has created a revolution, a mighty quest, and cast himself as hero, the John Wayne who rescues the nation from economic self-destruction and moral chaos. His childhood --shaped by the rejection by not just one but two fathers, and the manic-depressive illness of his mother-- created a psychic need so great that only the praise that attends a savior can fill the vacuum inside him. He drives himself monomaniacally, obsessed only with his goal. No amount of personal deprivation --100-hour workweeks, no vacations, no time with his wife-- diminishes his narcissistic vision of the global glory that will ultimately be his prize.
"It's not altruism! It's not altruism!" he proclaimed to The Washington Post in 1985. "I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I'm doing it...Oh, this is just the beginning of a 20-or-30-year movement. I'll get credit for it...As a historian, I understand how histories are written. My enemies will write histories that dismiss me and prove I was unimportant. My friends will write histories that glorify me and prove I was more important than I was. And two generations or three from now, some serious, sober historian will write a history that sort of implies I was whoever I was."
Until he reaches his "impossibly high ideal," Newt will remain the unacknowledged child. Many observers see the child at the center of Newt. "Newtie is still a kid," admits Kit. Marcella McPherson agrees: "Newtie wants things Newtie's way...If he wants something, he wants it now. Newtie was always for Newtie."
One of his first independent acts was to escape the totalitarian regime of his stepfather's home. He chose a path that women have used for generations: he made a jailbreak marriage, attaching himself at the tender age of 19 to his high-school geometry teacher, Jackie Battley --a buxom blonde seven years his senior. "He was her little boy," says Kit.
Says Mary Kahn, "He saw a nurturing, mothering kind of person that he needed, and she finished raising him...She certainly seemed to love him. But I don't think he was capable at the time of loving anybody more than he loved himself."
"He locked in on her and pursued her relentlessly," says Kip Carter, Gingrich's campaign treasurer from 1974 to 1978. Jackie moved to Atlanta, where, coincidentally, Newt was offered a partial scholarship at Emory University, which was known for its history department. He had decided to become a professor.
Bob Gingrich boycotted his stepson's wedding, but Newt and Kit remained close. She remembers visiting the couple at Tulane University, where Newt entered graduate school. The Gingriches had one daughter, Kathy, who was born nine months after their marriage. Their second daughter, Jackie Sue, followed in 1966. Kit recalls that the young family's living conditions were spartan. Their couch was "propped up with a brick," she says. "I mean, Jackie didn't have any clothes."
Says Bob Gingrich, who seems to have changed his mind about his daughter-in-law, "She busted her butt for him when he needed her."
Newt, who avoided Vietnam with student and marriage deferments, resisted taking a job. During his college years, Newt called up his father and stepmother to ask for financial help. His stepmother, Marcella McPherson, can still hear his exact words: "I do not want to go to work. I want all my time for my studies...Bob Gingrich told me he will not help me one bit. So I wondered, would you people help me?" Big Newt began sending him monthly checks.
Dolores Adamson, Gingrich's district administrator from 1978 to 1983, remembers, "Jackie put him all the way through school. All the way through the P.h.D...He didn't work." Adds Adamson, "Personal funds have never meant anything to him. He's worse than a six-year-old trying to keep his bank balance...Jackie did that."
When I ask Marianne if she keeps the checkbook for the man determined to balance the nation's budget, she laughs quietly: "Yes, I do a lot of our finances...I pretty much handle the money." She acknowledges that at the time of their marriage, in 1981, Newt was in great personal debt, "so we had to work our way out of it," a feat she says was accomplished only last year.
Friends of Newt's from graduate school recall a single-minded, achievement-oriented workhorse with a Nixonian level of social unease. Newt was, however, a mesmerizing presence --articulate, highly energized, driven by his quest, his dream. Yet even as early as Tulane, he seems to have assessed issues in purely political terms. Neither moralist nor ideologue, he was from the very beginning a pure pragmatist, an actor in the political theater, always honing his presentation.
"Looking back on everything, Newt was always focused on his agenda," recalls Dot Crews, Newt's campaign scheduler through the 70s. "It was not about political philosophy with Newt --never. If the country today were to move to the left, Newt would sense it before it started happening and lead the way."
During Newt's early years as an assistant professor at sleepy West Georgia College, he developed a reputation for a sort of Wagnerian overreaching. Stephen Hanser, one of Newt's closest intellectual advisors, found himself in 1972 in a contest with Newt over the chairmanship of their department. Hanser was unfazed by the young, unpublished instructor's chutzpah. "Oh, I think Newt being Newt saw an opportunity to make some changes in the department, and the fact that he was 28 or 29 at the time didn't bother him." After only a few years on campus, he also pushed himself for the presidency of the college.
Newt Gingrich is hardly the first young politician to exhibit relentlessness or tenacity. But from the beginning there has been an overheated quality to Gingrich's ambition that has caused remark. It still does. "He's the man overtaken by his own energy," says Mary Kahn. "He's just all over himself. It's like 'Take a pill. Calm yourself down.' If he calmed himself and could be more thoughtful, then perhaps he could be more effective."
Dot Crews calls Newt "a frenetic psyche." Frank Gregorsky, who began working for Newt in 1978 while still in college and served as his chief of staff in the early 80s, says, "All of his colleagues have had the rug pulled out from under them enough to know that Newt's a bright bulb with no dimmer switch. It's either on or off...either pitch-black or you're blinded by the light...He can't modulate or nuance or taper."
The legacy of manic-depression stemming from his mother, Kit Gingrich, may be relevant here, given the fact that the condition is an inherited one in about 80 percent of cases. After Kit acknowledged that she is manic-depressive, I asked whether Newt had been tested psychologically. She responded, "Smart kids don't need it...They get mad and they get glad."
After reminding Newt that Churchill and Lincoln are said to have been afflicted with, respectively, manic-depression and depression, I ask if he thinks he has anything similar to compensate for. "I don't know," he says. "I think somebody could go through my childhood and my background and find some way of describing it."
I wonder whether he believes that great leaders --with their exceptional endurance and ability to act and think on several planes at once-- are different from others, even biochemically different?
"I don't know," he tells me. "You have to have a genetic toughness just to take the beating...Lincoln had long periods of depression. Churchill had what he called his 'black dog.' F.D.R. had polio at a time when nobody who was in a wheelchair could be a leader. You go down the list...My point is this: to what degree is the capacity to lead a function of willpower and discipline?"
Dr. Frederick Goodwin, director of the Center on Neuroscience, Behavior and Society at the George Washington University Medical Center and a national authority on manic-depression, made no attempt to diagnose Newt Gingrich but did provide some illumination on the Speaker's possible genetic inheritance. "There is interesting new data on first-degree relatives," he says. "It sounds like he has one first-degree relative with manic-depressive illness, his mother, and at least one second-degree [his maternal grandmother, who "wiped out"]. What generally gets transmitted in offspring that don't have the illness itself is the drive and creativity...the positive aspects without the negative aspects, the silver lining. First-degree relatives of manic depressives often become successful...Gingrich's quickness, his ability to pick things up quickly, are not inconsistent with what the studies of first-degree relatives of manic-depressives have shown."
Some children of manic depressives exhibit traits of a less severe form of mania known as hypomania. Another expert, a psychiatrist at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, elaborates on hypomania, describing it as a state below mania. "There are people who are close to manic but don't become flamboyantly manic...You can call it a biochemical imbalance. It is part of the consideration of manic-depressive illness today. I have seen it in families." According to this expert, grandiosity is a frequent symptom of this condition. "And in Gingrich, his upbringing and the hypomanic flair of the personality might create a double reason for his being grandiose because he's trying to overcome the feeling of tremendous inferiority."
In Manic Depressive Illness, which Goodwin co-authored with Kay Redfield Jamison, he describes the usual mood in hypomania as "ebullient, self-confident, and exalted, but with an irritable underpinning." He goes on to quote earlier studies that characterizes the thinking of a person in a hypomanic state as "flighty. He jumps from one subject to another, and cannot adhere to anything." Another study describes the role of hypomania and extroversion in some leaders, noting behavior that is "often intolerant and unyielding...given to impulsive action...full of energy and at the same time full of strong purpose and burning conviction...the outcry attracts other extroverts and soon there assembles a group of dominant men who unite in a common cause."
Newt Gingrich's political career began officially in 1973 when he declared himself a candidate for Congress. In 1974 he gave a quote to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution which was clearly meant for the history books: "[My ambition] is to be an old-time political boss in 20 years." Not the most idealistic of intentions, but that was Newt and he has done it --on his own, feverish timetable.
Most of the people who worked on the Gingrich congressional campaigns during the 70s were actually Democrats. "My mama said that the only Republican who'd ever done anything for that part of Georgia was William Tecumseh Sherman," says Kip Carter. "We downplayed the Republican thing completely...You don't see 'Republican' in any of the ads or campaign posters." Says James Gray, a professor who was Newt's officemate for three years. "I voted for him in 1974 and it's the only time I ever voted Republican. I thought he was a moderate."
Along with his amorphous political persona, Newt showed a propensity for the kind of behavior boys boast about in the locker room. Throughout his first campaign he was having an affair with a young volunteer. Dot Crews, who occasionally drove the candidate, says that almost everybody involved in the campaign knew. Kip Carter claims, "We'd have won in 1974 if we could have kept him out of the office, screwing her on the desk."
The Gingriches entered marriage counseling, but Newt continued to behave as if other people's rules didn't apply to him. Dot Crews observes, "It was common knowledge that Newt was involved with other women during his marriage to Jackie. Maybe not on the level of John Kennedy. But he had girlfriends --some serious, some trivial."
One of those women, Anne Manning, became romantically involved with Gingrich during his '76 campaign. The curly-haired young Englishwoman, then married to another professor at West Georgia, Tim Chowns, was an avid volunteer in Newt's Carrollton office. "I did have a relationship with him," she discloses for the first time, "but when it suited him, he would totally blow you off."
In the spring of 1977, she was in Washington to attend a census-bureaus workshop when Gingrich took her to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. He met her back at her modest hotel room. "We had oral sex," she says. "He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, "I never slept with her." Indeed, before Gingrich left that evening, she says, he threatened her: "If you ever tell anybody about this, I'll say you're lying."
She tells me this, she says, because she fears that Newt might become president someday. "I don't claim to be an angel," she says, but she is repelled by Newt's stance as Mr. Family Values. "He's morally dishonest. He has gone too far believing that 'I'm beyond the law.' He should be stopped before it's too late."
Kip Carter, who lived a few doors down from the couple, saw more than he wanted to. "We had been out working a football game --I think it was the Bowdon game-- and we would split up. It was a Friday night. I had Newt's daughters, Jackie Sue and Kathy, with me. We were all supposed to meet back at this professor's house. It was a milk-and-cookies kind of shakedown thing, buck up the troops. I was cutting across the yard to go up the driveway. There was a car there. As I got to the car, I saw Newt in the passenger seat and one of the guys' wives with her head in his lap going up and down. Newt kind of turned and gave me his little-boy smile. Fortunately, Jackie Sue and Kathy were a lot younger and shorter then.
The conventional line on Newt's political ambitions is that he has been single-mindedly determined to gain the Speakership. In fact, he started planning his run for president 20 years ago.
In November 1976, ignoring the minor setback of having just lost his second campaign for Congress, he and his acolytes began to plot a presidential run scheduled for 2000 or 2004. According to a close source, "We were all discussing the timing, his age, working out the one-term and two-term presidencies in between. I think the plan is still going. I think he will be president.
As is his habit, Newt is apparently toying with the notion of accelerating his schedule. So I ask him about some of the scenarios now floating around Washington.
"Some, even your mother, say Bob Dole looks old. By fall he may even look older."
Newt chuckles. He does not defend his fellow Republicans. (Eddie Mahe, one of Newt's advisors, has told me that Newt well understands that it is in his interest to see Bill Clinton re-elected if he doesn't run himself.)
"Some say it's in your interest to have a weak president to kick around for four more years," I propose.
New arches back in mock shock. "Only a city as cynical as Washington could come up with that...I can't imagine anyone who knows me well who would say that. I don't operate that way."
"Suppose," I say to the Speaker, "in late fall the Republicans come to you and say, 'Look, we've got a vacuum, and we really need you to fill this hole.'"
"The last genuine draft for the presidency was in 1789, and he was sitting on Mount Vernon. Think about it this way. This is a moment in time when there's an enormous vacuum, and the baby-boomers know it...We'd better get this country back together again, or they're not going to be able to retire." Newt then verbalizes what sounds like the basis for his own internal debate: "You could spend the next 18 months as one of a number of decent, hardworking people trying to be president, which is an entire job of its own. Or you could spend the same number of months leading 230 other members of the House and framing the environment of the presidential campaign so that the whole team can go in."
Tentatively, he muses that he would probably have a bigger net impact being the Speaker of the House. But in that role he's merely a featured player in the upcoming presidential epic. Wouldn't he rather star as Newt the McPherson? He comes back with bombast --but puts off the choice: "I care about driving and getting this country back together. This country is desperate for leadership."
The General Patton style of leadership which allows Newt to see a hole and drive straight through it does not lend itself to winning friends or building lasting coalitions based on loyalty. His self-confessed people problems --the inability to connect easily with others-- could handicap him in ascending to a higher platform. It may even be a problem already. One of the shrewdest Democratic movers in recent congressional memory defines the Speaker's position in terms of "no depth of loyalty" from his party in Congress. "And he doesn't show loyalty, either."
"Newt read books," says Eddie Mahe. "He doesn't do friendship." Newt's former best friend in Congress, Vin Weber, has also admitted that Newt has problems with interpersonal relationships. "I told him so every day," Weber remarks.
"He always tried to be one of the boys," says Kip Carter. "He never quite was." To illustrate the point, Carter tells a down-home kind of story from the 1970s. Newt and Carter, who was then his campaign treasurer, used to barbecue hogs in the Gingriches' driveway in Carrollton, Georgia. They would go to a friend's farm and pick out a hog --and shoot it.
"One day, Newt says to me, 'I need to be the one to kill the hog. It's only right, just morally.'"
Carter showed Newt how to use a Walther P-38, a W.W. II German pistol. "I said, 'Put some corn in your left hand. When the pig comes over to get it, put the pistol against his head and shoot him between his eyes.'"
"So the pig comes over and he starts eating," says Carter. "Newt flinches as the round hits the pig on the side of the head and ricochets down." But the shot only stunned the hog and sent it fleeing back into the pen. "Newt keeps trying to get this pig to come back to him. Newt's getting madder and madder. I said to him, 'You just shot the son of a bitch in the head, Newt, why do you think he's gonna come to you?'"
Carter recalls urging his comrade-in-arms, "'You gotta get in there, in the hogpen, and go get him.' But Newt wouldn't do it. So I ended up going in the pen and killing the hog."
Unlike Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich cannot easily transmit empathy to the camera or a gathered audience. Like Nixon, he does not easily communicate sympathy, trustworthiness, or compassion. His eyes do not meet the camera. He meets the world with the gaze of an outsider whose attention is inwardly engaged. People willingly give to Newt for quite an extended period of time because they are electrified by his tenacity and vision. But as time passes and they expect their relationship with the man to deepen, it doesn't. And when he is finished using them, he moves on, discarding former loyalists like so much used ammo. Gingrich routinely dismisses any negative public statements as the work of disgruntled former employees, but the depth of feeling among his former allies is remarkable. "There are no former disgruntled employees," says Dot Crews. "We're all just sorry that we ever went to work for him in the first place and that we didn't get out sooner."
Ladonna Lee, president of the Eddie Mahe Company, did many projects with Newt in the 80s. She sums up one aspect of his people problem this way: "He's a very tough taskmaster. A lot of different people who have been his chief of staff or A.A., no matter how well they do, it's never enough."
Newt's style of leadership, described by Eddie Mahe as "the mountaintop philosophy," may be a further complication. Says Ladonna Lee, "He would always get people started on a project or a vision, and we're all slugging up the mountain to accomplish it. Newt's nowhere to be found...He's gone on to the next mountaintop."
Echoes Dolores Adamson, "He would say, 'You have to understand that I am a think tank, I can save the West, and when I come up with a new idea, we need to move on it immediately.' We'd have this big project going, and all of a sudden it just faded away. Everybody went into swarms to try and get something accomplished. And then he turned on them and did something else."
Vin Weber says, "I never saw a lot of crackpot ideas. I saw a lot of good ideas. But there was difficulty in assessing a cost-benefit ratio. Even if every idea is good, resources are limited. With Newt, it didn't matter if we were overreaching, we had to do everything."
In 1978, in the G.O.P.'s first election victory in rural Georgia this century, Newton Leroy Gingrich was elected to Congress. Party pros, dubbed "the $1,000 suits" by the Georgia good old boys, hit town to offer tips to the new star. But without them, Newt had already impressed no less than Eddie Mahe, then deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mahe well remembers the summer afternoon in the mid-70s when he first met the young politician. Hot sun was pouring through his office window; Newt was dressed in sky-blue polyester pants and a madras jacket. "How did this dork get in here?" Mahe thought. Then the visitor began to speak: the unknown renegade sweating it out in polyester impressed the seasoned campaign strategist with a shrewd, concise ("Three points --boom, boom, boom") assessment of his Democratic foe in Georgia. Mahe saw a very live wire --and began to spread the word.
The 1978 victory closed a remarkably ugly campaign which foreshadowed the next chapter in the annals of Newt, who had now begun his metamorphosis into the Che Guevara of conservatism. During a recent interview with David Frost, Gingrich was asked about a leaflet-part of his '78 "Let Our Family Represent Your Family" campaign --which said that if Newt's Democratic opponent, Virginia Shapard, were elected she would have to break up her family to move to D.C. and hire a nanny to assume her maternal responsibilities. Newt maintained that the leaflet was sent out without his knowledge by an operative he later forced to resign --Kip Carter. "It was a mistake to have used it, and I would have told him at the time, frankly," Newt maintained. Carter says that the candidate himself not only approved the leaflet but was also involved in television advertising where a Shapard stand-in was shown "wearing an iron bracelet that looked like she belonged to the SS."
The family-values campaign might have seemed a bit risky to some candidates who had done a bit of philandering. But Newt, it appears, does not see himself as vulnerable to the trip wires that ensnare others. His blind spot may be his own personal invulnerability, his faith in his ability to always manipulate opinion. By the time the Gingriches moved to Washington, however, at least one old loyalist, his wife, was no longer swayed by Newt's bluster. When a friend paid a visit, she found Jackie and Newt quarreling about his refusal to dump the trash. It was the classic argument of the woman's saying, "When you go to the Hill, you are the god that everyone waits on. But when you come home...It's still your job to be part of the family!"
Jackie had reason to make demands. "I'm sure Jackie's income as a teacher was very essential between 1970 and 1979," says Richard Dangle, Newt's dean at West Georgia. "Most of their income went into Newt's political campaigns." According to Dangle, Newt's assistant professor's salary of $11,000 was cut by a third each time he took a leave to run for Congress.
During 1979 and 1980, Newt Gingrich --despite his political success-- entered a period of crisis. He almost, to borrow a phrase, "wiped out." "He went through a real down period, ducked his head, retreated from the battlefield," says Eddie Mahe. According to other sources, Newt was drinking heavily. "There were people concerned about his stability," says Kip Carter.
"It was a very, very bad period of my life," Newt has admitted. "It had been getting steadily worse. I ultimately wound up at a point where suicide, or going insane, or divorce were the last three options." In April 1980, he told Jackie, who was suffering from uterine cancer, that he was filing for divorce.
He was soon having an affair with a woman known to a member of his staff as "the mystery lady." Fifteen years younger than Newt's wife, she had "big cow eyes," says one former congressman. It was the future Marianne Gingrich, whom Newt had met at a Republican fund-raiser in Ohio in January of 1980.
Newt tried to explain what he was going through to his mother. She remember his words: "He said, 'I'm going to deal with Jackie.' I asked, 'But why?' He had no idea. He said, 'I'm either going to get a divorce or I'm going to have a nervous breakdown. I can't take it.'" Kit adds, "I've often wondered if she had taken that weight off maybe they would still be together."
One of the "$1,000 suits" from Washington suggests that Newt's attitude might be "a delayed adolescent rebellion." But another observer cites a different factor, "He thought that she was not transferable to sophisticated Washington, which he considered himself --Mr. Backwater-- to be able to manage."
Dot Crews learned about the divorce from Newt himself. "I was driving him one day, and...I asked if there was another woman, knowing full well that there was one." He denied it. But Crews realized, "You don't ask questions you know they're going to have to lie about."
For some time, Jackie tried to hold on. "He can say that we had been talking about it for 10 years, but the truth is that it came as a complete surprise," she told Lois Romano of The Washington Post. "He walked out in the spring of 1980...By September, I went into the hospital for my third surgery. The two girls came to see me, and said, 'Daddy is downstairs. Could he come up?' When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from my surgery."
Jackie's divorce lawyer, Edward Bates, expected that Newt would want to have the divorce handled quietly and diplomatically. But it started off very badly. "We went to court to get the basic financial necessities met." The utilities were about to be cut off --it was dire. Jackie's testimony at a hearing to determine alimony --revealing Newt's $34,000 personal debt, his spending habits, his refusal to pay forwarded bills-- appeared in detail on the front page of the hometown newspaper, the Carroll County Georgian, on October 23, 1980. It was two weeks before Newt's bid for re-election to Congress.
"Holy shit, how are we going to survive this?" was the first reaction of Frank Gregorsky, then a staffer for the National Republican Congressional Committee who worked in the Gingrich camp. But as it turned out, Newt carried the country and added to his majority in the rest of the district. Gregorsky developed a theory: "There must have been some quiet, angry, white males out there...who felt trashed by women. He now had a badge of honor."
The slim, dark-haired stranger who began to appear around the Gingrich congressional office about the time of Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981 did not impress all the members of the Gingrich team.
"Well, I don't want to be unkind to her, but Marianne didn't know how to dress," says Dolores Adamson. "She was smart enough, I think, but she was somehow a little naive...In staff meetings, she'd go away in tears, because she didn't really understand. She would just be totally frustrated and confused."
Marianne Ginther's perspective was formed by the small-town culture of Leetonia, Ohio, a speck of a village so tiny that it has only one traffic light. Harry Ginther, Marianne's father, an insurance manager, was at one time the town mayor.
Although she rather proudly characterizes herself as strong-willed, Marianne admits, "I was not like what you'd call the best student. I was not a bookworm...I was a tomboy. I could outrun all the boys on the block." She enrolled in an architecture program at Kent State, but fell away after her second year, which followed the tragic shootings of Kent students in the spring of 1970.
Marianne made her way in the world with a little help. She eventually became a community planner for the Trumbull County Planning Commission. "I watched her and I thought, Here's a lady who can function in a man's world," says Lyle Williams, then the Republican congressman from her district. Despite the fact that Marianne had no professional degree, Williams maintains that she became a very effective community planner. "She could get along with men," he repeats several times. Williams was part of a board that replaced the longtime director of the planning commission, Ed Kutevac, with Marianne. ("Within 24 hours," she recalls, "I was it!") Kutevac, however, fought back and ultimately regained his job. Williams allows, "Politically, it kind of put Marianne on the spot."
"I didn't think I was going to rise quickly or do anything fancy," she says, "but if you show up and you're the one who's working, you just end up to be the person getting promoted."
Shortly before meeting Newt Gingrich, the 28-year-old Marianne ended her affair with Marlin "Whitey" Ford, the head of a United Auto Workers local. His relationship with the younger woman had been strained, Ford told Kim Masters of The Washington Post, because he had been married at the time --and the father of three. I asked Marianne if her relationship with Ford was an important one. "I don't want to explain it," she says. "I think it's irrelevant to bring it up."
"Very quickly after the breakup of Marianne and Whitey, she and Newt went on a camping trip," says an old Leetonia friend. "She said Newt's divorce wasn't final yet." Marianne doubted that her romance with the congressman would be more than a fling, says Betty Sekula, an Ohio planning official who worked with Marianne. Lyle Williams was also surprised when the couple stayed in touch. "I didn't think it was spectacular fireworks," says Williams. Others, however, have noted the contrast between Jackie, the maternal sparring partner, and the adoring acolyte he acquired in the younger woman. His sister Candace explains: "Jackie was his equal. With Marianne, initially, he was the authority, the high power."
The second-term congressman married the country girl in Leetonia, Ohio, in August 1981 (six months after his divorce). A family friend who knew both wives observes, "He became the 'only child' in a world where she worshipped him." In the first few years of their marriage Marianne turned herself inside out to please her man, who had admitted to "the habit of dominance." She went back to school and earned an undergraduate degree in business administration from Georgia State University. She tried wearing bows in her hair and did beauty makeovers and became an image consultant for BeautiControl Cosmetics. Knowing her husband's devotion to reptiles, she gave him an emerald-tree boa for his birthday. They kept the snake in the bathtub. She worked hard to make Newt happy. But there were problems.
"Newt was indifferent to Marianne right from the beginning," says a sympathetic Betty Sekula. "It was him, not us."
I ask Marianne if their marriage was a one-sided equation from the beginning. "That's true...I was necessarily happy being married to someone like Newt," she admits. Later on, she says, "I made it very clear I wasn't happy with certain behaviors." She gave him a copy of the book Men Who Hate Women & The Women Who Love Them, by Susan Forward and Joan Torres. The book describes men who are socialized to dominate and control. One variation is the "Henry Higgins" type of man, who is "often charming and even loving," but who switches to "cruel, critical, insulting behavior on a moment's notice...They gain control by grinding the woman down. They refuse to take responsibility for how the attacks make their partners feel."
"Oh, boy, does that sound like Newt!" exclaims a family friend. Another family observer agrees with this assessment and says, "She may not be Eliza Doolittle, but he sure as hell is Henry Higgins. I feel sorry for Marianne."
"When their relationship is good and strong, he's at his very best," says former congressman Vin Weber. "If there's any tension in the marriage, it just drives him to distraction." In 1982, Newt fairly exploded in frustration when his chief of staff, Frank Gregorsky, objected to having the Gingrich campaign pay to have Marianne fly around the country with him. Gregorsky argued that it was the wrong thing to do politically. But the congressman wouldn't bend. Gregorsky describes him banging his arms against a door and wailing, "Why don't you all understand? Why don't you understand what I need?" He won the argument, of course. Gregorsky says, "If you ever fight with Newt on one of those things, he will either go ballistic or he will break down. It is dangerous."
By the mid-80s the marriage had been perforated with separations. One issue may have been the fact that Marianne was expected, as Jackie had been, to contribute her times and earnings to Newt's political advancement. "I felt that Marianne had a mission," says Betty Sekula. When Marianne turned up in Leetonia in 1988 and tried to outfox Sekula in a situation involving a federal grant for a former employee, Sekula challenged her. "You forget that if anything happens in this town, I know about it by early afternoon." Marianne, she says, grew very uncomfortable and pleaded, "I had to do it." Sekula gathered that "it was her marriage, it was money, I think she was desperate."
At one point, Newt publicly described the chances of his second marriage succeeding as 53-47. He confides during our interview that he really had not learned to express emotion until he married Marianne --when he was nearly 40.
"It's been one of the most painful things I've ever been through in my whole life," Newt tells me, "trying to understand the degree to which behaviors that I thought were totally appropriate were destructive." He pauses, looking glum.
"You mean you drove people away that you loved?"
"Sure. I had stupid, unthinking assumptions."
"About women, among other things."
Today, Newt asserts unconvincingly that the presidency is not "one of the three highest items" on the checklist for the rest of his life. "But," he says, "hanging around with Marianne is pretty high on the list...I really do want to experience a lot of marriage."
When I ask what else is on the list, Newt rolls out a wish list that sounds like the contents page from Men's Journal. "I've always wanted to cross the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea...I would love to go and collect dinosaur fossils for a while. Probably in Montana or northern Arizona. I would really love to spend six months to a year in the Amazon basin, just being able to spend the day watching tree sloths."
But in Washington there are many demands on the Speaker's time. Since Newt became a national celebrity, he has no shortage of female admirers --from Callista Bisek, a former aide in Congressman Steve Gunderson's office who has been a favorite breakfast companion, to the ubiquitous Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, who has become a self-appointed guardian to the newly desirable Newt.
Marianne Gingrich, however, doesn't see her husband very often.
"I like adventure," Marianne tells me. "I just don't like the public."
A year ago, she and her husband bought their first home, in the affluent Atlanta exurb of east Cobb County, a former pasture now paved with new money. Cobb County subdivisions have names such as "Beverly Hills" and "Falcon Crest." She spends most of her time there alone.
Marianne's world is a small "cluster house" on a cul-de-sac. "We have two bedrooms and an office room," Marianne says proudly. "We also have a living room with no furniture. I haven't had a chance to go shopping."
What attracted her to Newt Gingrich?
"Good question," she says, adding, "Newt says we started talking and just kept talking. There's some truth in that."
Does she want children of her own?
"Let's not touch that one," she answers.
Newt suggested I ask his wife if he has changed.
"I would have to honestly say that Newt has worked very, very hard to change," concedes Marianne. He has even helped her build an independent career. Last September, a job was arranged for her as a marketing representative for an Israeli-based company seeking a free-trade zone there. She was recommended by Vin Weber after Newt's intercession with top Israeli officials on behalf of Weber's interests as a lobbyist for the company.
Marianne tells me that the job takes a lot of her time. But she has been "hanging on to it for dear life," since Newt's enemies have added it to their list of the Speaker's alleged ethical lapses. "My job has been on semi-hold, because the company has decided basically to shut down some operations," Marianne confides sadly. "But I'm still involved, because they made me vice president of marketing."
I ask Marianne how often her husband takes a vacation with her.
"Let's see, last August..." Her voice drifts off. "But not what you'd call a real vacation." She finally recalls a time, two years ago, when they stayed several days in Stephen Hanser's cabin in the north-Georgia mountains. "We went for hikes, I cooked at home a lot, but we kind of hung out and read and talked."
"He completely ignores her," observes a Washington journalist who has interviewed Marianne. "It's my impression the marriage is a dead letter. He is so self-obsessed, she could open the door wrapped in plastic wrap and he wouldn't notice."
But Marianne has at least made the Speaker notice when she asks him to take out the trash. "Lives are at stake here," he protested one day when she made her request. He had been on the phone dealing with the Nicaragua situation, says Marianne.
"No, no, no," she shot back. "It doesn't matter. Take the garbage out."
What was Newt's greatest test of courage? I ask his press secretary. "Maybe taking on Jim Wright," says Tony Blankley. "He wasn't taking on one man, he was taking on essentially a whole town, relatively alone. He knew what the danger was going in." But by 1984 he was ready for the attack that would be the equivalent of his Normandy.
Wright, a 30-year veteran of Congress, represented Newt's Faustian pact for fame and power. Newt's ultimately successful campaign to unseat the Texas Democrat began in 1987, when he unleashed an extensive round of ethics charges against the Speaker, but the first hostilities came in May 1984, inspired by Newt's recognition that the C-SPAN cameras in Congress offered his main chance for national exposure.
Frank Gregorsky, then a Gingrich staff writer, had worked for nine months on a paper which cited particularly controversial Democratic statements on foreign policy in Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua. According to Gregorsky, Newt said, "We're going to read this on the record. We're going to pick a fight." Democrats were apparently informed that Gingrich was to deliver a Special Order that afternoon. "They just thought it was another Newt thing," says Gregorsky. At the close of the legislative day, Newt read the incendiary paper --before an empty chamber and for the benefit of the C-SPAN audience. He accused the Democrats of believing that "America does nothing right." It was pure theater.
Yet the attack so violated the traditional comity of the House that then Speaker Tip O'Neill "lost his cool" (in Gregorsky's words) and a few days later --in a full session of Congress --accused Gingrich of "the lowest thing I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress." Representative Trent Lott demanded that O'Neill's words be stricken from the record, and the presiding congressional officer ruled in his favor. Gingrich's tour de force made all the network news shows that night --and a star was born. "I am now a famous person," Newt crowed to the press.
But in his mania for immediate headlines, Newt had drawn blood, and his enemies still swear vengeance.
The mid-80s saw the debut of a new storyteller in the land. Cultural myths are what we live by. And Newt brought us a new myth --the Angry White Man Strikes Back-- delivered in a voice sharpened by Newt McPherson and Bob Gingrich, a voice with the swagger of John Wayne and the stridency of Sergeant Stryker, a voice perfectly pitched to the tenor of the times. In The Ambition and the Power, John M. Barry reports that in 1985 Newt was already aware of the new myth he intended to create for America. As he had done during his lonely childhood, Newt used words as weapons, perfecting a politics of personal destruction. At one lunch, writes Barry, Newt grabbed a napkin and drew a diagram illustrating how he intended to define the opposition "out of existence." On other occasions Newt said that Democratic leaders were "corrupt," that they associated with "thugs," and that they followed Neville Chamberlain's philosophy of "withdrawal from the planet." Their policies, he warned, would bring to American shores "the joys of Soviet-style brutality and the murder of women and children."
The more outrageous his rhetoric became the more "hits" he got on television and in magazines. "We are engaged in reshaping a whole nation through the news media," Newt himself acknowledged to The Washington Post. "Newt's used the media from the beginning," boasts Tony Blankley, who goes on to emphasize that Newt's style and approach actually pre-date the rise of Rush Limbaugh. Newt's press secretary even draws a comparison to the Ayatolah Khomeini, another charismatic leader who created a revolution by audiotape. Newt took over GOPAC in 1986 and transformed the PAC once associated with former presidential candidate Pete du Pont into his personal marketing and money-raising machine. Every Republican candidate for state or local office got a new audiotape once a month; these tapes transmitted the conservative gospel straight from the mouth of Newt to the ear of every young, ambitious true believer behind the wheel of a car traveling the back roads of politics. "Over the years he has put out a total of something like 2,000 tapes," says Blankley.
"Not many of us had much confidence in the post-Watergate era that we would be the ruling majority in our lifetime," says Wilma Goldstein, who was director of survey research for the National Republican Congressional Committee in those years. "Very few, maybe nobody. But Newt was always writing memos to all of us about what a Republican majority would look like."
And on November 8, 1994, Newton Leroy Gingrich triumphed over all the doubters and detractors from his past. He became King of the Hill and spiritual leader of the first Republican majority in both houses in 40 years.
Can Newt Gingrich change? Can the wild-haired warrior tame himself into a silver-haired statesman? "He reminds me of Daniel Ortega in a way," quips Democratic senator Christopher Dodd. "These guys never take off their fatigues after they've won the revolution."
The fact is that Newt Gingrich has been concerned about his ability to shift into a more presidential persona for at least a decade. Ten years ago Wilma Goldstein asked him point-blank, "Are you the right person to be the leader of the movement if we ever become the majority?"
"I've been thinking about that," Newt said. He had just returned from England and a debate at the Oxford Union, lugging a stack of books about leaders who had played both backbench attack dog and seasoned leader. "I want to see if I can learn what it takes to do that," he told Goldstein. "But if I'm not the right person, I won't be that leader."
The point is that Newt's inner dynamic, the single-minded drive that has fueled his quest, is so all-consuming that it may distract him from the need for consistency on issues he sees as peripheral. In July, Newt blurted out his support for U.S. recognition of Taiwan as a free and independent country, drawing fire from even his friend Henry Kissinger. Chastened, he admitted he didn't care much about Taiwan; he was re-enacting a scene from Allen Drury's novel Advise & Consent. "I don't do foreign policy," he said, adding, "I wanted their attention."
Under the pressures of his racing internal time clock, Newt is likely to betray the core issues he sounded so passionate about yesterday. "Newt is decisive but changes his mind, so whatever he's doing might change in six months," says Frank Gregorsky. "But when it changes he is blindingly defensive and assertive about it." The biggest change may be yet to come. Newt, who started out as a moderate, may shed another skin when the pain of the budget revolution kicks in. Newt's loyal point man, Congressman John Kasich, head of the Budget Committee, may be the fall guy.
Newt's military mind-set, formed by Bob Gingrich and the battles of his psychic heroes, is deeply ingrained and an essential part of the way he operates. In a recent appearance on the Charlie Rose show, Newt quoted Mao: "Politics," he intoned, "is war without blood." Gingrich's pal Stephen Hanser says that part of Newt's strategy in the House is based on combat theory, namely the German armed-forces doctrine of Auftragstaktik, or "mission orders." The problem is that in the heat of battle subtleties are lost. Standards fall. Atrocities are forgiven. Especially if the action is rapid-fire.
And with Newt, it always is. Speed is unfailingly of the essence. The 100-day Contract with America is the best proof. The Speaker has the tendency to set up accelerated timetables and artificial deadlines, based on the necessity to keep his "frenetic psyche" within some boundaries. In Newt's world, dominated by hungry media perpetually in need of bigger jolts of adrenaline, there is no debate, no moderation. As Marcella Mc Pherson said, "If he wants something, he wants it now."
"I think the manic part of Newt's personality is troublesome," says one moderate Republican in Congress. "The hyperactivity, the racing thoughts. He flits from one subject to the other and sometimes fails to make the connections."
"You can't sprint when you're in a marathon," frets Stephen Hanser, "and this is a marathon...He does need time to read, he does need time to reflect." And basically, says Hanser, since July of last year, Newt hasn't taken a moment to reflect. His aide-de-camp tried to coax the Speaker to his cabin in north Georgia during his recess that followed his triumphant first 100 days. But Newt was already "laptopping" for his treatise, To Renew America.
One well-known television interviewer recently observed Newt at very close range. "When Gingrich was being made up for his interview, he looked beat, lifeless, exhausted." Once the interview started, he came to life. "But you know from seeing people that wrung out and still under high pressure, their judgement isn't great and they can make disastrous decisions," says the interviewer. "I think Gingrich will inevitably self-destruct."
Five different accusations have piled up against Newt Gingrich in the House Ethics Committee over the past year. Two of the major complains concern Newt, Inc. (as the Speaker's multimillion-dollar fund-raising empire is known), and the activities of GOPAC. Critics charge that the secretive PAC has acted as a legislative fix-it shop for Newt's major contributors and has also been used to support the Gingriches' personal lifestyle.
Newt's handpicked Ethics Committee chair, Congresswoman Nancy "Stonewall" Johnson, failed to question many of the most obvious witnesses until a frontpage story in The New York Times in late June pushed her to open the hearings on Newt's $4.5 million offer from publisher Rupert Murdoch. Privately, even some G.O.P leaders have expressed distaste at the spectacle of the new Speaker rushing into a commercial book deal with one of the barons of the telecommunications revolution, namely Murdoch, whose interests are at the fore of the Gingrich legislative agenda.
"The volume of published evidence clearly calls for investigation...It is vital that the Ethics Committee hire outside counsel and pursue these questions thoroughly. The trust of the public and the integrity of the House will accept no lower standard."
That statement was not issued by Congressman David Bonior or the Democratic National Committee's NewtGram. These were the sentiments of Newt Gingrich himself, issued in a 1988 press release where he demanded an outside counsel --with no restrictions--to investigate the activities of then Speaker Jim Wright.
Since Newt Gingrich helped set many of the snares that brought down his fellow congressmen, the ultimate enigma in his character is this: Why would he court disaster by stepping anywhere near the very same snares? "It's easy to tiptoe through the perils of Washington by reading history," points out Stan Brand, a former counsel to the House now known as "an ethics doctor." Continues Brand, "As the facts begin to come out, the parallels between Newt and Wright become more consistent."
The rap on Jim Wright's book deal was that it was an elaborate ruse to allow a friend to funnel him money by publishing a book of prepackaged anecdotes and excerpts from speeches. Newt Gingrich's book To Renew America is based partially on repackaged material from Gingrich's course at Kennesaw State College in Georgia, material allegedly generated by the tax-exempt Progress & Freedom Foundation and GOPAC. "What does that look like?" asks Stan Brand. "Jim Wright with more zeros."
I ask Gingrich himself, "A person as brilliant as you obviously knows what the trip wires are in Washington."
"I'm probably the leading expert in the House on it," he boasts.
"So why would you step anywhere near close to the perils that brought Jim Wright down, like the controversial book deal? You yourself have said, 'I might have been crazy.'"
"I made a public-relations mistake," he replies.
Shouldn't you be suspicious if Rupert Murdoch asks to meet with you?
"Rupert Murdoch is a leading right-wing conservative who was very close to the Reagan administration...I've been on Rupert's side ideologically from day one."
"Do you see anything obscene about Rupert's publications?"
Tits and ass as a formula? That's what he's known for all over the world.
"I don't particularly like Fox Broadcasting, some of their shows. But I can tell you that in the Reagan years he was very helpful editorially."
So because he's helpful politically to you, you can overlook the fact that he contributes to the moral decay of America?
"No. I don't overlook that fact. I'm saying that I meet with everybody who comes by me."
Will the quest of the hero be cut short by the posse because of this blind spot --his faith in his own powers? If he does fall, Newt Gingrich would not be the first politician to get what he's always wanted, only to self-destruct.
Perhaps Gingrich doesn't quite believe the mythology in which he has cloaked his long, unglamorous march to the top of the Hill. As was the case with Gary Hart before him, one part of Newt is truly confident that he would make a magnificent national leader. But there may be an inner voice of doubt --the voice of the past, Big Newt and Bob Gingrich-- which is silenced only by the attempt to prove he is so worthy, so tough, so heroic that he is above the rules that apply to ordinary mortals.
But what happens to the country while Newt Gingrich immerses his insecurities in a cause meant to justify himself?