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The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree

As Newt Gingrich smears yet another president, it is interesting to read what I wrote of him three years ago in the second volume of my Clinton trilogy.
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Newt Gingrich bugs the hell out of me.

I wrote about him in the second volume of my Clinton trilogy, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency (published by PublicAffairs, 2007), at the point where Gingrich became President Clinton's nemesis, following the midterm meltdown of 1994.

Three years later, as Gingrich smears yet another president, it is interesting to read what I said of him!

Here's what I wrote:


Newton Leroy McPherson - alias Newt Gingrich

Born three years year apart and on collision course, Newton Leroy McPherson and William Jefferson Blythe IV were, by 1994, the political stars of their respective parties - campaigning as Congressman Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton.

McPherson had initially been brought up - like Billy Blythe -by a maternal grandparent (a teacher, Ethel Daugherty) and an extended family in Pennsylvania, who had taught him to read and love books. His father, Newton McPherson, was a quintessential redneck, a farm boy from Fiddler's Elbow. Known as Big Newt - he was six foot three - the elder McPherson was not a reader. From the age of "16 to 35 he was in bar fights," his son later recalled. "My mother was very frightened of him." When she became pregnant and Big Newt continued to slam her, his own father threw him out of the McPherson family home, where they were living. Divorced by his wife, Big Newt joined the Merchant Marine.

When Little Newt - or Newtie - was three, his mother Kit had remarried, choosing this time a man who worked on the Reading Railroad, Bob Gingrich. In return for being exempted from providing child support for Little Newt, Big Newt ceded to Bob Gingrich the right to adopt Kit's son, who asked (like Billy Blythe) to change his family name and became, once Bob Gingrich went to Korea as an infantry officer, an "army brat," living with his mother and adoptive father wherever they were stationed, around the world.

Like Billy Blythe, Little Newt suffered from obesity, with inevitable consequences among his peers. He loved animals and reptiles, but had such poor eyesight that, until his disability was identified at age 12, he "literally couldn't see people." It would be, even his staff agreed, a lifelong affliction.

Like Bill Clinton, né Blythe, Newt Gingrich would become the butt of his stepfather's anger - but also of his stern, unrelenting and unmet military expectations.

"No, I don't think I ever impressed him," Newt later reflected on his stepfather, Bob Gingrich. "He and I fought from the time he adopted me until I was 19. It wasn't tough. It was just a fact." The Colonel did not disagree - though he hated sentimentality. "Some people thought I was too tough with Newt. I just wanted to get him out of the house and earn a living," he snorted. He certainly never hugged Newt. "You don't do that with boys. I didn't even do it with my girls" - Newt's two half-sisters. Disobedience had brought swift, unsparing punishment. When Newt stayed out till the early hours of morning as a young teenager in Orleans, France, and had to be brought home by the military police, his adopted father - wakened by the MPs - felt shamed by such an unmilitary stepson. In a reverse scenario of the scene in Bill Clinton's childhood when Bill confronted his abusive stepfather who was about to beat and rape his mother in Hot Springs, it was the stepfather who, in Gingrich's case, confronted his errant son. "I took him inside, grabbed him by the lapels, and I smashed him against the wall," Bob Gingrich later admitted. "We were face-to-face."

Gingrich - who was promoted to colonel - did not need to further intimidate the terrified thirteen year-old ("it is hard to be belligerent when your feet aren't touching the ground," Colonel Gingrich later mocked). The message was unmistakable. "There was no need to shout. He didn't do it again."

A Man-boy

If Little Newt didn't impress his adopted father, he became determined to impress other folk - especially older people.

It was as a self-confessed man-boy ("I was a 50-year-old at 9" Gingrich later reflected) in his junior year at Baker High School, back in Columbus, Georgia, that Newt Gingrich had fallen in love with his math teacher, Jackie Battley, who also ran the school's drama club. She was seven years older than her pupil.

"Persistent and persuasive," Gingrich got the math teacher to agree to date him, secretly - even persuading her to convert to the Lutheran church from her Baptist faith. When Colonel Gingrich had tried to separate the pair by insisting Newt go away to college at Emory University, Jackie moved, too - obtaining a teaching position in Atlanta. Two days after his nineteenth birthday, the freshman student with the huge head and fountain of dark hair, Newton Leroy Gingrich, né McPherson, married Ms. Battley, the buxom math blonde, who was twenty-six. "He was her little boy," his mother Kit - who, on the orders of her husband, the Colonel, did not attend the wedding - recalled.

Hired by Jack Prince as Republican congressional campaign manager while still an Emory student, Newt Gingrich then became as committed to, and involved in, Republican politics in Georgia at the same time that undergraduate Bill Clinton was in working for Democratic Senator Fulbright at Georgetown. Both boys possessed prodigious memories, relentless attention to detail, and a love of strategy - Gingrich's fuelled by his upbringing in Europe in military garrisons during the Cold War, his visits to the First and Second World War battlefields, and his addiction to heroic Hollywood movies, especially those of "The Duke," John Wayne.

From Emory State, financed by Jackie's teaching, Newt Gingrich went to the University of Tulane, New Orleans, where he took his Masters degree, then wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the Belgian colonial education administration in the Congo, passing his doctoral orals with distinction. Teaching at West Georgia College from the fall of 1970, Dr. Gingrich applied the next year to become President of the whole college! The following year - having failed in that endeavor - he applied (also unsuccessfully) to become head of the history department.

Here, clearly, was a young academic in a hurry. His interest in environmental affairs led to him to transfer to the interdisciplinary geography department - "the most charismatic teacher on campus," in the opinion of the department chair, a "fantastic teacher", a "populist" able to think outside the box and challenge received ideas with wit, a wide range of learning, and a sometimes reckless disregard of consequences. Like Bill Clinton as a student, Newt had dreamed of writing a "great novel," but settled for reality. Eschewing state office, he launched his first bid for Congress, like Clinton, as a college professor and in the same year, 1973.

Gingrich and Clinton duly won their Party primaries, the two professors demonstrating skills that went far beyond academia: Clinton challenging his opponent through charismatic, indefatigable retail politics - gladhanding with a smile from morning till night, and exhibiting a shameless willingness to ask for money - while Gingrich coached his team of volunteers like a star football team, identifying his opponent's tactical weaknesses, and penning endless lists of priorities to maintain focus. His "six basic rules for the campaign" had, in 1974, an almost military ring, reminiscent of Field-Marshal Montgomery's famous orders of the day.

Like Clinton an ardent admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gingrich decried his Dixiecrat opponent's abysmally poor record on civil rights, and spoke in numerous African-American churches throughout the sixth district as a fearless standard-bearer of the party of Abe Lincoln.

Both Gingrich and Clinton came three thousand votes shy of winning their respective elections that fateful year, when President Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment proceedings. While Bill Clinton never did make it to Congress, however, Newt Gingrich had proved successful in reaching the House of Representatives on his third attempt in 1978, when the incumbent retired, and an anti-tax, fundamentalist New Right wave swept the nation, giving Republicans new momentum in hitherto staunch Dixiecrat districts. It was in this manner that Newt Gingrich had become a young Republican Congressman from Georgia - in the same year that Bill Clinton became the youngest elected Governor of Arkansas.

An Ambitious Bastard

Ironically, just as Clinton had taken on a Republican media consultant, Dick Morris, so Newt Gingrich used a Democratic media consultant and filmmaker, Deno Seder, to destroy his rival, Virginia Shapard, a Democratic state senator.

Like Bill Clinton, Newton LeRoy Gingrich was not immune to the attractions of the opposite sex, despite being married. Anne Manning, an English volunteer married to one of Gingrich's faculty colleagues at West Virginia, was just one of his adulterous campaign conquests - an attractive woman who found her candidate preferring the same sort of sex as Bill Clinton. In her hotel room in Washington, where she was attending a conference in 1977, Gingrich insisted upon oral rather than penetrative sex. "He prefers that modus operandi," Anne later asserted, "because that way he can say 'I never slept with her.'" Before Gingrich left the room he'd warned her: "If you ever tell anybody about this, I'll say you're lying."

The parallel between Clinton and Gingrich was certainly remarkable: both men proponents of the opportunity society; pro-business; well-funded; intellectually astute; interested in future trends; personally unavaricious at that point in their lives but relentlessly ambitious in terms of their careers; tireless campaigners; and narcissistic - happiest when the center of admiring attention.

For all the genuine idealism that propelled them into politics, moreover, both men gained reputations as slick operators - criticized even by colleagues for hypocrisy, questionable loyalty, and amorality in the murky quest to win and retain power. Lee Howell, an early press secretary and friend, was quite candid. Gingrich's path to power, inevitably, was strewn with metaphorical bodies. "Newt Gingrich has a tendency to chew people up and spit them out. He uses you for all it's worth, and when he doesn't need you anymore he throws you away. Very candidly, I don't think that Newt Gingrich has many principles," Howell commented, "except for what's best for him, guiding him."

Chip Kahn, who managed two of Gingrich's congressional campaigns, puzzled over which came first in Gingrich's life: his dreams of personal success, or success in steering his chosen party towards a new kind of Republicanism. "I don't know whether the ambitious bastard came before the visionary, or whether because he's a visionary, he realizes you have to be tough to get where you need to be," Kahn confessed. The result, however, for those working for and with Gingrich, was often cruel. As Kahn's wife remarked in 1984, "Newt uses people and then discards them as useless. He's like a leech. He really is a man with no conscience. He just doesn't seem to care who he hurts or why."

Nowhere was this hurtfulness more evident than in Gingrich's private life. He had eviscerated his Democratic opponent, Virginia Shapard, with negative ads in 1978 for opposing a state cut in taxes; for handing out money indiscriminately to welfare recipients; and, worst of all, for intending to go to Washington without her spouse. As one of Gingrich's team recalled of their full page ads, under photographs of the two candidates, the caption for Mrs. Shapard - wife of a wealthy Georgian businessman - proclaimed: "If elected, Virginia will move to Washington, but her children and husband will remain in Griffin." Under the Gingrich photo the Republican caption boasted: "When elected, Newt will keep his family together."

Far from keeping his family together once elected, Gingrich had quickly dissolved his family, divorcing the teacher-wife who had changed her religious affiliation for him, financed his college and postgraduate studies, ceaselessly campaigned for him, and who had pictured him in public as a model church deacon and Sunday school teacher, while ignoring his philandering - even when his aides, collecting his children from school, reported seeing him in a car with a woman's head bobbing over his lap. Worse still, to the consternation of his friends and supporters, Gingrich had gone to the hospital where Jackie Gingrich was recovering from uterine cancer surgery, and with a yellow legal pad in hand had urged her to agree such disadvantageous divorce papers that her church would have to organize a collection on her behalf during the proceedings. "Newt can handle political problems," Gingrich's former press secretary attempted to explain such behavior, "but when it comes to personal problems, he's a disaster. He handled the divorce like he did any other political decision: You've got to be tough in this business, you've got to be hard. Once you make the decision you've got to act on it. Cut your losses and move on."

Aged 36, the freshman Congressman had considered his wife to be ageing baggage he should discard as soon as possible. "She isn't young enough or pretty enough to be the President's wife," one aide recalled him saying. Another commented on the explicit hypocrisy. "Newt thought, well, it doesn't look good for an articulate, young, aggressive, attractive congressman to have a frumpy old wife" - despite the election platform Gingrich had put forward as "Mr. Family Values." As a result, his staff split over the issue, and Gingrich had been lucky to win re-election in 1980 - after which, however, the narrowly re-elected Congressman felt safe to marry his girlfriend, Marianne Ginther, who had worked for him and was then employed as a clerk by the Secret Service.

The Last Three Options

Sadly, the same marital and extramarital saga would be repeated yet again, with yet another aide. By 1989, as Gingrich was pushing his activist, partisan and confrontational style in Congress in pursuit of a GOP majority and inventing the Conservative Opportunity Society platform with men like Dick Cheney and Trent Lott, he found himself bored at home and interested in new extramarital opportunities. He and Marianne separated frequently.

"Frankly," Marianne later told the Washington Post, "it's been on and off for some time." By 1993, Gingrich was enjoying a close relationship with Callista Bisek, a Congressional aide more than twenty years his junior. "Newt is apparently trying to create a new hybrid form, Christian adultery," one hostile organization later maintained. "According to MSNBC, Bisek sings in the [Roman Catholic] National Shrine Choir, and Newt would often wait for her at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, listening to her sing while he read the Bible."

Interviewing Gingrich in 1984, author David Osborne had already challenged the Congressman to explain his apparent hypocrisy - and had received a remarkably candid reply. "Looking back, do you feel your private life and what you'd been saying in public were consistent?" Osborne had asked - to which Gingrich had responded: "No. In fact I think they were sufficiently inconsistent that at one point in 1979 and 1980, I began to quit saying them in public. One of the reasons I ended up getting a divorce was that if I was disintegrating enough as a person that I could not say those things, then I needed to get my life straight, not quit saying them. And I think that literally was the crisis I came to. I guess I look back on it a little bit like somebody who's in Alcoholics Anonymous - it was a very, very bad period of my life, and it had been getting steadily worse. . . . I ultimately wound up at a point where probably suicide or going insane or divorce were the last three options."

Gingrich had not got his private life straight in the subsequent ten years, however. While continuing to trumpet Republican "family values" he had used his political ambitions to drown his inner fears and anxieties, and cover his philandering. As he himself would admit to an interviewer in 1995, "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."

In 1994, meanwhile, that cause became a cause célébre: the overthrow of American big government, and its replacement by a new, activist Republican crusade combining "traditional American values" and "a conservative opportunity society" hungry for the benefits of "advanced technology."

[pp 333-340, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, PublicAffairs, 2007]

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