Cover Story

Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong

Campaign 2008 | Does a brilliant leader make a good president, despite personality issues? Is Newt Gingrich's behavior during the 1990s a forecast of the future? Here's why he and voters should keep in mind the biblical concept of "calling"

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C.- In this spring of conservative discontent concerning the leading GOP presidential prospects, the potential candidacy of Newt Gingrich-he ranks third in GOP polls-offers the most intense quandary yet. From a Christian conservative perspective, he says all the right things. He's very smart-but is he presidential?

Eight years ago it didn't seem like that question would ever again arise. In August 1999, as Gingrich's second nasty divorce became media fodder, journalists reported that he had been secretly committing adultery with a young woman at the same time he was publicly taking Bill Clinton to task for his adultery with another young woman.

Coverage was extensive: The Lexis-Nexis database for that month lists 160 articles containing "Gingrich" and "Bisek." By the end of the year there were 550, many of them snarky and gloating like this one from The Washington Post: "For six years Gingrich two-timed his wife with a blonded-up, French-horn-playing Agriculture Committee staffer. His thing with Callista Bisek, now 33, was going strong through . . . the Republicans' 'Contract With America,' Gingrich's 10-point plan to turn America to the right values. . . .

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"Publicly, Democrats are sitting on their hands to keep from clapping over the Gingrich spectacle. Privately, 'I chortle every day,' said a party leader in Atlanta earlier this week. 'It's the utter gall that takes your breath away,' says a Democratic leadership aide. . . . Said Arianna Huffington, a onetime admirer who soured on Gingrich in the last few years: 'The right has completely lost any credibility in defining moral values. It's laughable.'"

And yet, when Gingrich last month told James Dobson on Focus on the Family's radio show that he had had an extramarital affair, hundreds of journalists reported this as if it were new information. How short our memories are.

The Dobson broadcast was a breakthrough in one important respect: Before, Gingrich's attorneys had publicly acknowledged his adulterous relationship. Last month, Gingrich himself did so publicly: "There are times that I have fallen short of my own standards. There's certainly times when I've fallen short of God's standards." Gingrich also distinguished between his actions and those of Clinton: The president lied under oath.

Dobson then pushed Gingrich: "You didn't mention repentance. Do you understand that word, repentance?" Gingrich said yes: "Absolutely . . . I believe deeply that people fall short and that people have to recognize that they have to turn to God for forgiveness and to seek mercy. . . . I also believe that there are things in my own life that I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed about and sought God's forgiveness."

Many journalists and academics were of course skeptical. Andrea Mitchell said on NBC's Today, "Gingrich is talking about repenting about his past infidelity to test the reaction of Christian conservatives, whose support would be crucial if he does run for president."

Whatever his strategy, this admission was a real turnaround for Gingrich. A little over a month earlier, in an hour-long interview with WORLD, he turned down the opportunity to clear the air concerning his infidelities and stated, "About the most I'll ever say is, I am a person. I have weaknesses, many of which are relatively public." Any regrets to offer voters? Apologies? Anything? "That's none of their business. . . . I have no ambition that requires me to get engaged in personal dialogues."

His engagement in personal dialogue on Focus on the Family's show was a smart move, but it may also have been a signal that he now has an ambition requiring public confession. That would be a change; in an interview on July 30, 1999, the day his divorce filing became public, he said he did not plan to run for president and would instead keep busy "developing the next generation of ideas."

That is the perfect calling for Gingrich, because he owes his rise to his impressive intellect. President John F. Kennedy once hosted a dinner for Nobel Prize winners and said the evening displayed "probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius [in the White House] except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Today, publicists could say that the Heritage Foundation generates more ideas per hour than anyone else-except when Newt Gingrich is giving a speech.

And it's fun to watch Gingrich in speechmaking action. After slimming down as marriage No. 3 began, he's widened out again and seems almost made out of blocks: square body, big square silver-haired, red-faced head. His stump speech touches on the messes in foreign policy, domestic policy, technology policy, policy policy, and lays out something like a 141-point strategy to deal with the messes, including a blueprint on how the White House should reorganize itself.

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