Marianne Gingrich had a half hour on network television Thursday night that many a former wife can only envy: telling her side of the story of a messy divorce at a moment designed to do maximum damage. What discipline she’s shown. Her revenge isn’t just cold. It’s frozen over the 12 years since Newt announced he was leaving her. It was all the more riveting because of it.
As details of the interview were leaking out—Newt asked for an open marriage, with a new wife he could be president—Newt Gingrich was riding as high as he may ever go in American politics, surging in the state of South Carolina two days before the polls open, threatening to stop the Romney juggernaut.
But Thursday’s drama would either kill him or make him stronger. It was a split-screen day. On one side there’s Gov. Rick Perry dropping out and endorsing Newt. Over there, Marianne in a subdued blue suit and wet eyes telling Brian Ross of ABC of her anguish as she learned that her husband was having an affair in Washington while she was back in Georgia. It “was going on in my bedroom in our apartment in Washington,” she said. It’s a nightmare particular to women that some other woman could be on their high-thread-count sheets purchased at a white sale. She continued, “He always called me at night and always ended with, ‘I love you’ ... when “she was listening.”
What goes around comes around is the theme of another part of the interview. Marianne was also surprised when Newt asked for the divorce only months after she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and even though he’d sat with her when the doctor told Newt that she “was not to be under stress.” How cruel to tell her it was over in a phone call when she was visiting her mother on her 84th birthday.
You can feel her pain but this is one of those occasions when only the wife is surprised. Any good girlfriend could have told her to be prepared: if her previously married husband had done it once, he might do it again. His treatment of her was harsh, but hardly more than his telling his first wife, Jackie, suffering from cancer and the mother of his children, that he was divorcing her while standing at the foot of her hospital bed.
Nor is the hypocrisy the least bit astonishing, except to Marianne. Newt informed her that he was having his affair with a House aide 23 years his junior while he was leading the drive to impeach Bill Clinton over his sexual relationship with an intern many years his junior. And all the while delivering speeches on family values.
Hello, Sen. David Vitter, John Ensign, Larry Craig, and so on. Marianne is a Republican, so she probably hasn’t noticed that infidelity is no longer an electoral deal breaker, especially if you are a Republican, even more if you are a Christian who can claim having asked for and received God’s forgiveness. Who can fact check that? God’s not speaking on the record except to Tim Tebow. The Christian right bought it, which is why so many of their leaders tried to stretch biblical redemption far enough to encompass a thrice-divorced Washington insider who dwells among the infidels and makes massive amounts of money representing unsavory interests only to spend it on jewelry at Tiffany’s for his onetime mistress and now third wife. Gingrich came closest of all the candidates to wresting the Christian right endorsement from the boy-scout father of seven, Rick Santorum, this past weekend at a gathering of 150 leaders at a ranch near Houston. He lasted three ballots until cooler heads hoping to regain some of the influence lost since the heyday of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell prevailed.
What was most shocking about the bombshell reveal—that Newt asked for an open marriage—was the Callista part. It’s not hard to believe that the entitled Newt would want a marriage with benefits but impossible to conceive that Callista would. Newt complained, Marianne said, about how unreasonable she was: “You want me all to yourself. Callista doesn’t care what I do.’”
Nothing we know about Callista suggests that. It’s unlikely Newt gets to do anything without her, other than tend to his most personal needs. She puts Nancy Reagan to shame. She’s the adoring wife in her Barbara Bush pearls and her Republican hair (she and Laura Bush share a salon) but the person she most resembles is “buy two for the price of one” Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Marianne reports that as Newt was dropping her for a newer model, he told her that Callista “was going to help him become president.”
Or hurt him, as his staff that resigned last summer when she insisted they go on a Mediterranean cruise contend. She’s president of Gingrich Productions (their film company), attends meetings at his political consulting firm, and convinced him to convert to her religion, Catholicism. When he goes to a diner, a VFW hall, or a town hall, she’s there. When she goes to sing in the church choir, play French horn with her band, or promote her children’s book, he’s there, friends say, waiting for her like a puppy. Like many a second, or third, wife, she is not going to let him out of her sight.
Eddie Haskell Santorum is supposed to get the evangelical vote what with his Christian-right backing, not the scalawag Newt. The interview may not change that much. Newt was not polling well among evangelical women before Marianne’s revelations, and surely won’t now. But he makes up for it with his surge among men in a state where divorce is not unheard of, despite the fact that 60 percent of Republican voters identify themselves as Christian conservatives. Residents of South Carolina divorce at a rate twice as high as for that den of iniquity, Washington, D.C. Many fewer people divorce in the bluest of states, Massachusetts, than in the Palmetto State, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.
At the debate last night, Marianne may have helped him. During the day, he put out his two daughters by his first marriage to defend him as “a different man now ... closer to God” It was his turn at night, and he took the question about open marriage and used it to ride his hobbyhorse against the media. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” he scolded moderator John King. “Every person in here knows personal pain ... to take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,” he said. “I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.” When King protested that it was ABC not CNN that gave Marianne a platform, Gingrich chastised him, “Don’t try to blame anybody else.” Nothing else mattered. He coasted on that opening response through the rest of the debate.
It was sad to see a good woman who loved a bad man, and is so much the worse for it. But it may not change many minds. Months ago, Newt explained that he cheated on his wife as the result of feeling so passionate about his country that he worked too hard and then as a result--as anyone would--indulged in a six year affair while preaching traditional marriage as the foundation of the Republican party. Newt is a particularly weak adulterer, the kind who has to have a replacement wife firmly in place before dropping the prior one. In answer to another question, Gingrich said, “Each of us writes a selective history.” Nowhere is that truer than in matters of the heart, especially when the heart goes wrong.