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.
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