The Corner

Re: Newt and His Confession

I don’t usually like to discuss stories that were rejected. But in the fall of 1999, I wrote this op-ed and tried to place it, first with the New York Times and then with the Washington Post. Neither wanted it, so I gave up. Perhaps both papers just had better stuff, but I think they also didn’t want to pile on Gingrich when he was down. But I have to confess, I thought it was an interesting story at the time, and, given the news lately, I think it’s still an interesting story. So here is my piece from 1999, from the archives, never-before-published:

In the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, some Republicans couldn’t decide which was more astonishing: Bill Clinton’s behavior or the silence of Newt Gingrich. Although he had daily opportunities to criticize the president for carrying on with a former White House intern, Gingrich resolutely refused to talk. “Every citizen ought to slow down, relax and wait for the facts to develop,” he said as the Lewinsky news broke. He had little to add on the subject for many months.

It was good strategy, given that the press was making plenty of noise on its own without any help from the Speaker of the House. But we now know there was more to Gingrich’s reticence than just smart spin. It turns out the speaker himself was involved with a congressional aide more than 20 years his junior, a fact that became public in late July when Gingrich filed for divorce from his wife Marianne.

Recent court filings by both sides suggest it will be a contentious breakup; already Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich are trading public accusations over infidelity and money. Their clashes could make for sensational stories in the coming months, but the Gingrich divorce is of more than tabloid interest. It has created an angry sense of disappointment among some of the former speaker’s supporters that could affect not only his own political fortunes but those of his party.

Gingrich’s divorce petition contends that his marriage is “irretrievably broken,” a claim his wife strongly denies. Marianne Gingrich, in her response to her husband’s court papers, implies that the real reason for the split is Gingrich’s relationship with Callista Bisek, a 33-year old staffer on the House Agriculture Committee. Mrs. Gingrich also alleges that her husband has tried to grab the couple’s assets and she asks the judge to freeze those assets until the divorce is final. The first court hearing in the case is set for September 16.

Even though there had been rumors of affairs in the past, many of Gingrich’s supporters were stunned. “I did not have a clue,” conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told listeners. “He has let down an awful lot of people.” “He’s all too similar to Clinton,” wrote the conservative Investor’s Business Daily, “in that he thinks it acceptable to lie to his wife and pander to his supporters with noble-sounding themes that he has rarely, if ever, lived by.” Other Republicans simply tried to avert their eyes.

Faced with such criticism, Gingrich’s lawyers filed a new set of court documents that, while legally unnecessary, portray Gingrich as the aggrieved party. Revealing that he and Marianne had been separated from late 1987 until some time in 1993, Gingrich released a photocopy of a deeply personal, hand-written note to his wife dated December 18, 1987, the day he signed their separation agreement. “Dear Marianski,” Gingrich wrote, “I hope this allows you to relax, heal up, and truly decide what you want to do with your life…I hope you decide you want to start a new relationship with me. If not I wish you a happy, long life with all your dreams fulfilled. Merry Christmas. Love, Newtie.”

The filing did not sit well with Marianne Gingrich. “I’m very disappointed that Mr. Gingrich has elected this very hurtful strategy,” her attorney John Mayoue says, “especially given his very public conduct that is at the center of this divorce action.” It does not take an in-depth analysis to see that “very public conduct” is Mrs. Gingrich’s code for the Callista Bisek affair. Last month Mayoue sent out another warning, saying his client “is prepared to thoroughly investigate Mr. Gingrich’s personal life as well as his business activities.”

Things might get even worse. Gingrich has proposed divorce terms that mirror those of the 1987 separation deal in which he agreed to pay his wife $2,000 a month for six months. Given that Gingrich’s 1999 income is expected to be in the millions—he makes about $50,000 for a single speech—it seems likely that proposal will go nowhere. Worse for Gingrich, the judge has approved his wife’s request to depose Bisek and will almost certainly okay a request to question Gingrich himself, meaning the former speaker will be forced to testify under oath about, among other things, sex.

What effect will this have on Gingrich’s future? Ever since he left the House, some observers have speculated on a “Nixon scenario” in which the former speaker would return to electoral politics much as Richard Nixon did after defeats in 1960 and 1962. Nixon worked hard for the Republican party during his years in exile and most observers expected Gingrich to do the same. Even out of office, his fundraising skills are impressive; no one else can match his delivery of what one associate calls “red meat and vision.” In the 1998 election cycle, Gingrich made more than 400 campaign appearances in more than 200 cities in nearly every state. In the 2000 campaign, with Republicans fighting to keep control of the House, Gingrich planned to raise money for individual candidates as well as his own political action committee.

But it seems less likely that he will do that as much, or as successfully. “The whole dynamic has changed dramatically,” says one well-connected Republican. “I’m not sure that he will be as sought-after by congressional candidates.” “I don’t think it helps,” says another Republican. “Does it drop his ability to raise money by a tenth, or a third, or half? Good question. I don’t know.”

Whatever the cost, why would Gingrich choose such a self-destructive strategy? Why not reach a quick settlement with his wife, keep the terms a secret, and move on? It’s the question no one can answer. “I’m not so baffled that he had something on the side,” says a friend, reflecting the reality of life of Capitol Hill, “but that he would then go public with it the way he did.”

Both sides say they don’t want a protracted and public fight, even as they prepare for one. “Believe me, the parties are engaged in settlement talks,” says Gingrich attorney Thomas Browning. “No matter what the case is, it’s always much more beneficial to reach a settlement that both parties can live with, rather than having a judge make the decision.” But much of the damage is already done, leaving Gingrich’s friends perplexed at this latest turn in his life.

Now, here we are, eight years later, still dealing with the same issue.

Byron York — Byron York is is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.

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