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The Swinging Days of Newt Gingrich

Newt's 2nd wife says he wanted an open marriage. This 1984 Mother Jones' profile was the first to expose Gingrich's wild side.

| Thu Nov. 1, 1984 4:00 AM EST

Newt in the 1980s as a US congressman in Newnan, Georgia.: Robin Nelson/ZumaNewt in the 1980s as a US congressman in Newnan, Georgia. Robin Nelson/Zuma

Despite the solid family-man advertising pitch, however, some of Gingrich's associates could sense what was coming On election night, several of them took bets on how long his marriage would last. Unknown to them, the Shapard campaign staff was doing precisely the same thing. It seemed plain to many that while Gingrich had used his wife to get elected, he would now consider her a liability. "Jackie was kind of frumpy," explains Lee Howell, who asked Gingrich to be his best man in 1979 but pulls no punches about his friend's divorce. "She's lost a lot of weight now, but she was kind of frumpy in Washington, and she was seven years older than he was. And I guess Newt thought, well, it doesn't look good for an articulate, young, aggressive, attractive congressman to have a frumpy old wife."

The winning bet, as it turned out, was 18 months. In April of 1980, the candidate who had promised to "keep his family together" told his wife he was filing for divorce. According to sources in whom Gingrich confided at the time, he was already having an affair with the woman he later married.

When I asked Gingrich about this, he did not deny it. "I'm not going to get into those details or the questions about 1974. I think there is a level of personal life that is personal...I had married my high-school math teacher two days after I was 19. In some ways it was a wonderful relationship, particularly in the early years...But we had gone through a series of problems—which I regard, I think legitimately, as private—but which were real. There was an 11-year history prior to my finally breaking down, and short of someone writing a psychological biography of me, I don't think it's relevant."

Private behavior becomes relevant, I suggested, when it contradicts the rhetoric on which a public official has been elected. "Looking back, do you feel your private life and what you'd been saying in public were consistent?"

"No," Gingrich answered. "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."

The divorce turned much of Carrollton against Gingrich. Jackie was well loved by the townspeople, who knew how hard she had worked to get him elected-as she had worked before to put him through college and raise his children. To make matters worse, Jackie had undergone surgery for cancer of the uterus during the 1978 campaign, a fact Gingrich was not loath to use in conversations or speeches that year. After the separation in 1980, she had to be operated on again, to remove another tumor While she was still in the hospital, according to Howell, "Newt came up there with his yellow legal pad, and he had a list of things on how the divorce was going to be handled. He wanted her to sign it. She was still recovering from surgery, still sort of out of it, and he comes in with a yellow sheet of paper, handwritten, and wants her to sign it.

"Newt can handle political problems," Howell says, "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."

People in Carrollton were particularly incensed by the fact that Jackie was left in difficult financial straits during the separation, after her surgery. According to Lee Howell, friends in her congregation had to raise money to help her and the children make ends meet, and Jackie finally had to go to court for adequate support, before the divorce decree. In his financial statement, Gingrich reported providing only $400 a month, plus $40 in allowances for his daughters. He claimed not to be able to afford any more. But in citing his own expenses, Gingrich listed $400 just for "Food/dry cleaning, etc."—for one person. The judge quickly ordered him to provide considerably more. When an article on the hearing appeared in the local paper, many in town were incensed. On election day, a few weeks later, Gingrich's winning margin in Carroll County fell from 66 percent in 1978 to 51 percent.

"Newt came up there with his yellow legal pad, and he had a list of things on how the divorce was going to be handled. He wanted her to sign it. She was still recovering from surgery, still sort of out of it."

In part because of the divorce, in part because of the way he dealt with others, Gingrich has left behind him a string of disillusioned friends and associates, many of whom are now willing to air their feelings. Listen, for instance, to Lee Howell, who is still friendly with Gingrich: "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, except for what's best for him, guiding him."

Or Chip Kahn, who ran two of his campaigns and has-known him for 16 years: "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."

Or Mary Kahn: "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."

L.H. Carter was among Gingrich's closest friends and advisors until a falling out in 1979. "You can't imagine how quickly power went to his head," Carter says. The first time Gingrich flew back to the district, Carter remembers, he "pitched a fit" because Carter was still walking up to the gate to greet him when he arrived, rather than standing and waiting for him. Soon after, they were discussing a supporter who had complained to Gingrich about one of his votes. "I was sort of chiding him about not staying in touch with 'the people'," Carter says. "He turned in my car and he looked at me and he said, 'Fuck you guys. I don't need any of you anymore I've got the money from the political action committees, I've got the power of the office, and I've got the Atlanta news media right here in the palm of my hand. I don't need any of you anymore.'"

"The important thing you have to understand about Newt Gingrich is that he is amoral," says Carter. "There isn't any right or wrong, there isn't any conservative or liberal. There's only what will work best for Newt Gingrich.

“He's probably one of the most dangerous people for the future of this country that you can possibly imagine. He's Richard Nixon, glib. It doesn't matter how much good I do the rest of my life, I can't ever outweigh the evil that I've caused by helping him be elected to Congress."

"He's probably one of the most dangerous people for the future of this country that you can possibly imagine. He's Richard Nixon, glib. It doesn't matter how much good I do the rest of my life, I can't ever outweigh the evil that I've caused by helping him be elected to Congress."

Gingrich knew that I had talked to people like Carter and the Kahns. As a parting thought during our second interview, he told me, "I have worked very, very hard to be in a position to help the country save itself and this is a very, very tough business. And I would say that along the way I've made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies. Hopefully up to now it's been marginally more friends."
 

In July of 1983, Gingrich made a name for himself in the House by demanding that Representatives Daniel Crane and Gerry Studds be expelled for having affairs with House pages. "A free country must have honest leaders if it is to remain free," he proclaimed.

"We are in deep trouble as a society... People are looking for a guidepost as to how they should live, how their institutions should behave, and who they should follow." 

"Our decisions are not made today about two individuals; our decisions are made today about the integrity of freedom, about belief in our leaders, about the future of this country, about what we should become."

For many in Carrollton, the hypocrisy of these statements was too much. "I understood totally that in my hometown and among people who knew me, there would be a lot of people who would be very cynical and would say, 'Who does he think he is?"' Gingrich admits today. "And part of my conclusion is the same one I'm sure you run into. If the only people allowed to write news stories were those who had never told a lie, we wouldn't have many stories. If the only people allowed to serve on juries were saints, we wouldn't have any juries. And I thought there was a clear distinction between my private fife, and the deliberate use of a position of authority to seduce and abuse somebody in your care. And I would draw that distinction.

"I would say to you unequivocally—it will probably sound pious and sanctimonious saying it—I am a sinner. I am a normal person. I am like everyone else I ever met. One of the reasons I go to God is that I ain't very good—I'm not perfect. "

Gingrich cleverly sidesteps the real issue, which is not his private life, but the fact that he misled his constituents, publicly campaigning as a crusader for traditional morality while making a sham of that morality in his own life. If he preaches one thing and does another when it comes to moral issues, his constituents have a right to ask how far his views can be trusted on other subjects. How sound are Newt Gingrich's ideas about the nation's future? Is there more than a touch of fraudulence here as well?

Let us examine the key issues Gingrich has pushed this year, beginning with his insistence that the budget could be balanced without tax increases.

In his new book, Window, of Opportunity, Gingrich proposes at least a dozen new or expanded federal programs, plus several new tax breaks. When I suggested to him that the price tag would be $75 billion to $100 billion a year he did not flinch. Yet the book avoids specific proposals for cutting the budget. There is a chapter titled "Why Balancing the Budget Is Vital," but as Gingrich's former aide Frank Gregorsky puts it, "There's a declaration of war, but there's no ammo in the gun."

Gingrich and I spent the first half hour of our interview discussing this question. He laid out what he claimed would total $40 billion to $50 billion a year in budget cuts, which might balance some of his spending programs and tax cuts. He then briefly described a program calling for a simpler, less progressive tax system; elimination of waste in government; new "delivery systems" for government services, taking advantage of new technologies; and monetary and interest reforms. He made clear that on some of this—such as monetary and interest rate reform—his understanding was quite casual. Yet several days later he unveiled the package at a press conference and announced that it would "almost certainly" balance the budget by 1989.

Gingrich cheerfully admits that his entire economic agenda rests on the assumption that the US economy can average 5 to 6 percent annual growth—including recession years—for close to a decade, filling federal coffers without a tax increase. Look at "Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, West Germany for 20 years, the United States in the 19th century-there are times and places where you have that," he told me. In an article on the subject, he pointed to the 5.5 percent annual growth in the US between 1962 and 1967—neglecting to mention that the period fell between recessions, which would bring the average down, and that this spurt of growth, fueled in part by federal spending on the Vietnam War, was so rapid that it touched off the inflation we experienced in the 1970s. In the same article, he claimed we could simultaneously keep inflation down to 2 percent a year.

"We are on the edge of an explosion in space and biology, and in electronics we're going through a revolution in computers. We're on the edge of a take-off into what Toffler called the Third Wave."

From 1970 through 1983, our average annual GNP growth—after inflation—was only 2.5 percent. Why would we suddenly come out of such a period into record growth? Gingrich's answer is instructive: "The whole point of Toffler's Third Wave and Naisbitt's Megatrends and Peters and Waterman's In Search of Excellence and Drucker's Age of Discontinuity is we don't know crap about the near future. We are on the edge of an explosion in space and biology, and in electronics we're going through a revolution in computers. If we are creative, we are potentially where Britain was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We're on the edge of a take-off into what Toffler called the Third Wave."

In other words, we should bet the farm on Gingrich's optimistic interpretation of futurists such as Toffler—who made it clear after endorsing Gingrich's book that he does not agree with all of his politics. But even if Gingrich is right about technology—a dubious proposition in itself—that says nothing about economics. An explosion of technology in agriculture, during the teens and twenties, threw many people out of work and weakened consumer demand, helping to trigger the Depression. Some economists fear a similar impact from computer technologies, which make so much labor obsolete. In addition, Gingrich's rosy view ignores the short-term impact of the deficit, which has already pushed real interest rates to historic highs. If those rates go much higher next year, as economists predict, we may have another recession. At that point, the deficit could hit $250 billion a year with interest on the debt snowballing so fast that the gap might never be closed. Gingrich prefers to take our chances, however, betting on a decade of growth the likes of which we have not seen in this century.
 

Next, consider the issue of prayer in the schools. When speaking for this cause, Gingrich always describes the goal as "voluntary prayer"—ignoring the fact that students are already free to pray on their own, voluntarily. He maintains that current Supreme Court interpretation of the law does not even allow students to pray before eating their lunches, or to read their Bibles at school—both of which are simply false.

"The need for a moral revival is a major factor in my commitment to voluntary prayer in school," Gingrich writes. "For a generation, the American people have allowed a liberal elite to impose radical values and flaunt deviant beliefs." In a US News & World Report interview, he went so far as to claim that "our liberal national elite doesn't believe in religion." Making preposterous statements such as this allows Gingrich to set up a devil—the "liberal welfare state," run by the "liberal national elite"—and blame it for the decline of moral values in America.

"But see, I'm not a libertarian. I am not for untrammeled free enterprise. I am not for greed as the ultimate cultural value."

Gingrich knows better, however. In our interview, I asserted that the roots of moral decline lay not in our government, but in our consumer society; which is constantly bombarding us with a glorification of instant gratification, hedonism, sensuality, and the self. In discussing Gingrich with people who know him well, I heard over and over how adept he is at telling people what they want to hear. And sure enough, Gingrich agreed with me, simply redefining "liberal welfare state" to mean the entire society.

If our consumer society is to blame, I next pointed out, the problem lies within private enterprise. "Oh yeah," he again agreed.. "But see, I'm not a libertarian. I say it pretty clearly in the book, I am not for untrammeled free enterprise. I am not for greed as the ultimate cultural value." In the book, however, there is no emphasis on regulating private enterprise or forcing corporations to change the advertising messages they constantly beam into our living rooms. How would he deal with the problem? By "preaching a collection of values which over time people come to believe are true. It is closer to a religious, educational... it's moral leadership."

And so we come full circle. A congressman who seems to keep two different sets of books when it comes to matters of morality would lead us in a moral crusade. Such are the ironies of American politics.

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