[an error occurred while processing the directive]

This is FRONTLINE's old website. The content here may be outdated or no longer functioning.

Browse over 300 documentaries
on our current website.

Watch Now
The Long March of Newt Gingrich
the inner quest of newt gingrich
navigation, see below for textcontinued
"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."


more about newt . interviews . his work and writings . his reading list . a chronology
bibliography . feedback . tapes & transcripts . FRONTLINE online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation