The Little-Known, Inside Story About How Newt Became the Man He Is
*The following is excerpted from Max Blumenthal's book, Republican Gomorrah.
When Clinton returned to the White House for a second term, Dobson redoubled his efforts against the Republican leadership, particularly in undermining Newt Gingrich, whom conservatives within the House Republican Conference and outside it had come to regard as chronically unreliable because of deals he had made with Clinton, despite his shutting down the federal government twice. Dobson and DeLay agreed that Gingrich lacked not only the lust for confrontation that they sought in a party leader but also the moral qualities to be “a friend of The Family.” Referring to the Speaker, DeLay later wrote, “Men with such secrets are not likely to sound a high moral tone at a moment of national crisis.” Throughout his career in public life, Gingrich brushed off concerns about his moral fitness as mere distractions, reflecting to journalist Gail Sheehy, “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.” Newt Gingrich was born Newt McPherson to teenaged parents. Gingrich’s mother divorced his father and married a Marine officer, who adopted him and throughout his childhood savagely beat him and his mother. (Gingrich’s half-sister, Candace, became a lesbian activist. At the moment Newt became Speaker, she became the Human Rights Campaign’s National Coming Out Project Spokesperson.) As a young man, Gingrich, fascinated with zoos and dinosaurs, longed for an illustrious career in academia. He wound up teaching history and environmental studies at West Georgia College.
Gingrich grew his hair long, emulating the style of the counterculture that he secretly yearned to join. In 1974, as the Vietnam War drew to a close, the ambitious draft dodger entered politics, attempting to win a congressional seat in a suburban Atlanta district populated by conservative whites who fled the city when its public institutions and neighborhoods were desegregated. Appealing to the backlash sensibility of these voters, Gingrich declared the “Great Society countercultural model” his nemesis and their enemy.
Initially, Gingrich proved a lackluster politician, losing his first bid for the House. His campaign scheduler offered a candid assessment of the candidate’s failures: “We would have won if we could have kept him out of the office and screwing [a young campaign staffer] on his desk.” Gingrich was married at the time to his former high school geometry teacher, Jackie Battley, seven years his senior, whom he married when he was nineteen years old. Soon after his first extramarital tryst, Gingrich became involved with another woman, Ann Manning, who was also married. Manning said of her encounters with Gingrich, “We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, ‘I never slept with her.’” In 1978, Gingrich was finally elected to the House of Representatives. A year earlier, he had divorced Battley, serving her papers while she lay in bed recovering from cancer surgery. “She wasn’t pretty enough to be first lady,” he later remarked of his ex-wife. Gingrich refused to pay alimony or offer child support for his two children, forcing Battley’s church to take up a collection for her. In 1981, he married the mistress he had left her for, Marianne Ginther.
Within the Congress, Gingrich immediately fell under the influence of the Republican whip, Dick Cheney. Cheney, who had been President Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff and was granted deference among House Republicans, acted as the hidden hand promoting Gingrich’s rise. Gingrich’s staff soon ginned up a whisper campaign falsely accusing Speaker of the House Tom Foley, a Democrat, of being a closet homosexual. Gingrich stoked yet another manufactured scandal over some House members’ supposed abuse of their credit union, and this attack inadvertently led to the resignation of several Republicans and also tainted the House as a whole as corrupt. Gingrich was willing to sacrifice even close allies in his own party to advance his cause and ambition. The bodies of others were rungs on his ladder.
When President George H. W. Bush appointed Cheney secretary of defense, Gingrich, his secret protégé, filled his job as the House whip. With Clinton’s reelection, however, Speaker Gingrich’s career reached its nadir. When his national approval rating plummeted to 28 percent, he devoted his last reserves of political capital to press for Clinton’s impeachment. On cable news shows, he accused Clinton of felony perjury for his convoluted explanation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Gingrich’s leading role in the witch hunt compounded his private problems. Away from the klieg lights, Gingrich was embroiled in yet another affair, this time with Calista Bisek, a young blonde staffer twenty-three years his junior who he had arranged to be put on the House payroll. The wild mood swings that had always characterized Gingrich’s behavior intensified. Staffers discovered the Speaker crying at his desk.
Unknown to Gingrich, a cabal of Republicans led by DeLay and Largent were conspiring to force his resignation. They had the blessing of Dobson, who envisioned his hunting buddy Largent as the next majority leader. During a meeting in Largent’s office in the summer of 1997, the group of twenty congressional “rebels” hatched a plan to confront Gingrich with an offer they thought he could not refuse: Step aside or face certain defeat in a vote of no confidence in the House Republican Conference. At the last moment, however, the rebels lost the support of Armey as soon as he realized he was not their choice to succeed Gingrich. Armey dispatched his chief of staff to alert Gingrich to the plot against him, effectively halting the coup in its tracks. Gingrich emerged severely weakened, but for the moment his position appeared secure.
Dobson remained determined to dislodge Gingrich from his post. At a February 1998 meeting of the Council for National Policy (CNP), Dobson sought to mobilize the Christian Right for another coup attempt. The CNP is a highly secretive group that brings together top right-wing activists with conservative moneymen to shape political strategy. Its membership lists are never disclosed, and its meetings are strictly off-the-record. But Dobson’s speech to the CNP resounded beyond the walls of the Phoenix hotel where it was delivered. And although he did not address Gingrich by name, Dobson’s audience clearly recognized his target.
After an introduction by Elsa Prince, the kindly mother of Blackwater founder Erik and widow of Focus on the Family financial angel Edgar, whom Dobson had eulogized at his funeral three years before, Dobson appeared at the podium. He immediately launched into a jeremiad. The Republicans “are so intimidated. They are so pinned down,” he moaned. Then he threatened to carry out the political equivalent of a suicide bombing:
Does the Republican Party want our votes—no strings attached—to court us every two years, and then to say, “Don’t call me. I’ll call you?” Dobson asked. And not to care about the moral law of the universe? Is that what they want? Is that what the plan is? Is that the way the system works? And if so, is it going to stay that way? Is this the way it’s going to be? If it is, I’m gone, and if I go—I’m not trying to threaten anybody because I don’t influence the world—but if I go, I will do everything I can to take as many people with me as possible.
A month later, Dobson summoned twenty-five House Republicans for a meeting in the Capitol basement. There he restated his threats, pledging to bolt from the GOP unless Congress acceded to his far-reaching demands, from eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts to defunding Planned Parenthood. Dobson’s tone was so severe that he reduced the wife of one congressman to tears. Armey confronted Dobson, accusing him of “whining and complaining” as well as knowing “nothing about the legislative process.” Dobson retaliated by directing another failed coup attempt, this time pitting Largent against Armey. Focus on the Family mobilized its members by informing them falsely that Armey was a paid consultant to the ACLU. The majority leader later whimpered, “I was never so wrongfully and viciously attacked in all my eighteen years in Washington as I was by the Christian leaders.” As midterm elections approached, Gingrich advanced impeaching the president as his party’s unifying campaign theme. Armey lent the Speaker his full-throated support. “If I were in the President’s place I would not have gotten a chance to resign,” Armey told a reporter at the time. “I would be lying in a pool of my own blood, hearing Mrs. Armey standing over me saying, ‘How do I reload this damn thing?’” But the strategy backfired, resulting in the loss of five Republican House seats—the worst midterm-election defeat in sixty-four years for a party that did not control the White House. Gingrich promptly resigned from Congress. The intimate knowledge that other House Republican leaders had of his affair had sealed his fate.
Gingrich now turned to matters of the heart, dumping his second wife, Ginther, as soon as he quit Congress. He announced his intention to divorce her just as he had done with Battley—while she was lying in a hospital bed, immobilized after a major medical procedure. (Ginther’s appendix had ruptured.) He never bothered to tell his wife in person that he was leaving her for another woman. He simply called her on the phone, delivered the news, and hung up. Gingrich’s curious predilection for recovery room breakups suggested that his fear of confrontation ran deeper than even DeLay suspected. In the political wilderness, Gingrich bided his time, waiting for the right moment to reenter the fray. He cooled his heels at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, churning out op-ed articles and speeches battering away at the neocon punching bag, the State Department. He also found the time to author a trilogy of “alternative” historical novels in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. Then as DeLay’s ethical transgressions made his decline seem inevitable, Gingrich stepped back into the political spotlight.
During a November 2006 speech in New Hampshire, a key presidential primary state and requisite stop for White House hopefuls, Gingrich warned that “before we actually lose a city” to a terrorist attack, the government should consider limiting free speech. He complemented his brave stand against terrorism with a book-length appeal to the sentiments of the Christian Right. In this manifesto, Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich asserted America’s status as a Christian nation. “There is no attack on American culture more deadly and more historically dishonest than the secular effort to drive God out of America’s public life,” he insisted.
Gingrich’s renewed activity generated questions about whether he would try to run for president in 2008. For some in the conservative movement, however, Gingrich could never live down his serial philandering. Jeffrey Kuhner, editor of the right-wing Web magazine Insight, neatly summarized the movement’s mood. “Mr. Gingrich,” Kuhner wrote in March 2007, “views women as little more than sex objects who are discarded like an empty Coke bottle when they fail to satisfy his near-limitless appetite.” Kuhner concluded, “He is yesterday’s man.”
But for all his flaws, Gingrich remained a clever operator. He had a strategy to refurbish his image, if not resurrect his political career. And so in March 2007, Gingrich picked up his phone and dialed in to Focus on the Family. A producer promptly transferred him to a studio line, and the radio broadcast that he and Dobson had planned a month earlier during a meeting in Washington began.
Dobson led into the broadcast by reading portions of Gingrich’s New Hampshire speech calling for restricting the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. After this glowing introduction, Gingrich launched into an extended polemic about the threat of Islamic extremism and introduced a vague plan for splitting the FBI into two agencies, only one of which would “respect every civil liberty.” Everything between the former Speaker and the broadcaster seemed to be going swimmingly. Then Dobson turned to Gingrich’s marital history.
“Let me ask you about your family life,” Dobson said. “You’ve been married three times under some circumstances that have disappointed your supporters. There are some questions of that era that remain unanswered with regard to an affair and maybe more than one.” Dobson then asked his subject about the affair he had with Bisek while leading impeachment proceedings against Clinton. With that, Gingrich’s volatile temper flared. “This is one of the things the Left tries to do,” he snapped at his host. “The challenge I was faced with wasn’t about judging Bill Clinton as a person,” Gingrich continued. “I wasn’t going to cast the first stone because I can’t cast the first stone. Because I have in fact as every member of every jury of America has had weaknesses. And if that was the standard our whole system would collapse.”
Gingrich’s argument noticeably irritated Dobson. Dobson was convinced that at least he had the right to cast the first stone. He was a Nazarene, after all, and had been spiritually perfect since he was a toddler. Further, Gingrich’s assertion that “every member of every jury of America has had weaknesses” ran counter to Dobson’s Manichaean vision of a struggle between secular humanists and pure-hearted Christian possessors of absolute truth. The more Gingrich defended himself, the more the host’s tone sharpened.
“You answered that question in regard to Bill Clinton instead of referring to yourself,” Dobson reminded Gingrich. “May I ask you to address it personally? I believe you to be a confessing Christian and you and I have prayed together, but when I heard you talk about this dark side of your life when we were in Washington, you spoke about it with a great deal of pain and anguish, but you didn’t speak about repentance. Do you understand the meaning of repentance?”
With Dobson’s questioning of Gingrich’s faith, the sinner suddenly turned reflective. “They say when you’re younger you want justice and when you’re older you want mercy,” Gingrich said. “I also believe there are things in my own life that I have turned to God and got on my knees and prayed to God and asked for forgiveness. I don’t know how you could live with yourself without breaking down and trying to find some way to deal with your own weaknesses and to go to God about them.”
Dobson seemed pleased by Gingrich’s confession, and especially by the image of the sorry politician on his knees before the Lord. The depth of Gingrich’s sincerity was beside the point. What mattered most was that Gingrich, like a modern-day Lazarus, had given Dobson the power to lift him out of darkness and depravity. Having given his host ultimate satisfaction, Gingrich was worthy to receive the good graces of Dobson’s empire.
From his office in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jerry Falwell listened intently to Gingrich’s confessional interview. He was richly satisfied by what he heard. “I was pleased to hear Mr. Gingrich state, ‘I’ve gotten on my knees and sought God’s forgiveness,’” Falwell said. “He has admitted his moral shortcomings to me, as well, in private conversations. And he has also told me that he has, in recent years, come to grips with his personal failures and sought God’s forgiveness.” That day, Falwell invited Gingrich to speak at the graduation ceremony of his Liberty University’s senior class, a prominent forum for conservative political figures.
Two months later, Falwell was found slumped over his desk, dead at the age of seventy-three. Funeral arrangements for the legendary pastor were complicated by the arrest of a Liberty University student, Mark David Uhl, who had disclosed to a family member his plot to commit mass murder. The family of notorious Kansas pastor Fred Phelps, known for picketing soldiers’ funerals with signs reading “Fag Troops” (“Military funerals are pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy,” Phelps reasoned) had scheduled a protest outside Falwell’s funeral. Uhl had assembled several bombs he planned to deploy against the Phelpses.
The young would-be terrorist, whose personal computer was discovered by investigators loaded with images of young people giving Nazi salutes, had honed his destructive techniques by attacking his former high school on prom night with a homemade teargas bomb. Afterward, he claimed righteous motives, boasting to a friend that he had “saved a lot of people from losing their virginity that night.” The dreary atmosphere that had consumed Liberty University’s campus began to brighten at the school’s commencement ceremony four days later. There, Gingrich issued a rousing call for graduates to honor the spirit of Falwell by confronting “the growing culture of radical secularism.” The students, assembled before him on the field of Liberty’s football stadium, responded with thunderous chants: “Jerry! Jerry!” Gingrich’s sins seemed to evaporate with the rising euphoria he had incited.
In October 2007, as the Republican presidential primary season commenced in earnest, Dobson invited Gingrich to appear alongside the rest of the GOP presidential contenders at the Family Research Council’s annual Value Voters Summit in Washington. Gingrich was rewarded with the final speaking slot of the conference. When he strode on stage, the crowd of 1,500 evangelical activists rose to their feet to salute their prodigal son.
At the podium, Gingrich read the results of a poll he commissioned that supposedly provided conclusive evidence of how out of touch “secular elites” were from average Americans. The poll consisted of a series of tilted questions and hyped answers packaged as bombshell revelations, such as the news flash that 93 percent of respondents “believe Al Qaeda poses a very serious threat for the United States.” Seated at tables in front of the stage, several middle-aged women diligently wrote down this statistic and other important numbers on paper napkins.
Afterward, a line for Gingrich’s signing of his book Rediscovering God in America snaked around the convention’s exhibition hall for almost fifty yards. Young evangelicals approached the former Speaker in droves, posing beside him while their doting parents snapped pictures. Gingrich’s presidential aspirations would remain a distant fantasy, but with Dobson’s help, yesterday’s man had become a sought-after novelty act.
Gingrich’s instant and relatively easy redemption was not unique. He followed a long line of sinners, including serial killers such as Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz, forgiven and redeemed by Dobson simply because they had confessed their evil deeds and professed a commitment to evangelical religion. The sincerity of their tales was never questioned, even if, like Gingrich and Bundy, they had displayed established patterns of deception and cynicism throughout their lives. These reconstructed sinners were too useful to be doubted—useful both as poster children for the ravages of secular society and as charismatic fundraisers for the movement. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German clergyman executed by the Nazis for publicly opposing Hitler and denouncing church leaders who acquiesced to his rule, had a phrase for this phenomenon. He called it “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like a cheapjack’s wares,” Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943 in his book The Cost of Discipleship. “The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices . . . In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.”