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. . . .
"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.
He rushes in where dainty politicians fear to tread. For example, Gingrich doesn't think Islam should be called a religion of peace, because "it's a complex historical movement [with] elements that are loving and elements that are horrible." We need to "have an honest conversation" about Islam, and some of what occurs now in the United States is like "trying to describe Nazis without saying they're German."
On compassionate conservatism, Gingrich says that "money should go to the people to be helped, not to the bureaucracy." He praises Chuck Colson's faith-based prison work and also innovative schools such as the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academies that have grown up in many cities: "Why is it that I'm paying for a failed bureaucracy rather than for KIPPs?"
Wherever Gingrich speaks, people not only listen but think. Late last month he spoke in San Antonio to several thousand contractors at the annual meeting of the Associated General Contractors of America. He spoke about the importance of health-care reimbursement accounts in bringing about market-based health care that could reduce costs by 20 percent to 40 percent. He spoke about the need for government agencies to get up-to-speed technologically. The contractors gave him a standing ovation.
He revved up audiences similarly in the mid-'90s as he led the drive for welfare reform, which many observers still call the major achievement of 12 years of GOP congressional rule. He boldly embraced new ideas and moved Republicans from decades of unsuccessful sniping about "welfare queens" toward a stress on how welfare hurt poor families by destroying what was left of parental self-esteem and teaching children to see dependency as a way of life rather than an emergency response.
Gingrich is almost a walking proof of the importance of understanding biblical "calling" or "vocation." The biblical idea is that God, in His kind providence, has given each person the talent and personality to succeed at some occupations and not at others. Think of it like a basketball team: An outstanding 2-guard, who can make a good percentage of three-point shots, might fail as a point guard whose job it is to run the entire offense.
Gingrich is a great shooting guard, and he also crashes the boards at times and steals the ball from opponents. But when he was a point guard as speaker of the House, Bill Clinton not only stole the ball from him but stole his lunch-and at halftime, Gingrich's own teammates said he had to go. Current House minority leader John Boehner, a Gingrich ally during the 1994 Republican Revolution, said that under Gingrich "there was no design. . . . He'd make these giant pronouncements, and everybody would go, 'Huh?'"
The public-affairs events from 1995 through 1998, and not the private affair that went on throughout the period, are the major concern of some of Gingrich's close associates from that era-except that several see the adultery as an indication of reckless self-indulgence. The question that occupies them is whether an apparently happy remarriage has exorcised what one called "a set of [psychological] demons that he was unable to bring under control."
Former "Newtoids" would typically speak to WORLD only if I identified them as "former close advisors": They cited past loyalties and also concerns about future retribution from a powerful leader. The one who would speak on the record is Vin Weber, a Minnesota congressman from 1981 to 1993 and one of Gingrich's closest allies during that period. Weber is now the managing partner of a Washington lobbying office.
Weber said that Gingrich "thinks more deeply of the changes taking place than anybody I know in politics. [He] operates at several levels of depth greater than most politicians. Newt should never not be a major part of the national discussion." But Weber also observed that Gingrich's "negative image is not undeserved. He has a tendency to vilify his opposition. Words roll off his tongue-'corrupt, sick'-and stand in the way of his ever becoming a unifying leader."
Weber said that Gingrich was consistent strategically in his big vision but often changed tactics: "He's not an intellectual butterfly, [yet] at a tactical level people might be frustrated" as Gingrich zigs and zags to arrive at a certain point. But another former close advisor said that while Gingrich's "ideas are better than anyone else's" and "his capacity to grasp complexities is superb," he has "a deep insecurity, a lack of self-worth."
A third former close advisor stipulated that he was "not focused on marital infidelity" except as one indication that Gingrich "was not able to put aside his ego out of a sense of higher purpose or principle." He said, "It breaks my heart to say this, because Newt has a view of the world closest to mine, [but] is this the person I want across the table from Putin?"
Vin Weber argues that Gingrich's second marriage by all accounts was very troubled for a long time, and what seems to be a strong home life now has made a big difference. But Weber has endorsed Mitt Romney-noting that Gingrich is not currently a candidate.
If he becomes one, will Gingrich's adultery of the 1990s be an issue? Southern Baptist leader Richard Land has said that he would not expect either Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani to gain lots of Southern Baptist votes. Gingrich himself has differentiated between relatively recent actions and those of "35 years ago." Many evangelical voters will wonder about the trustworthiness of a national leader who at full maturity indulged his passions in such risky ways.
When WORLD asked Gingrich whether voters should trust him, he said, "I've never said they should trust me." He said voters should ask, "Am I the one most likely to help them achieve the future they want for their children?"
Marvin Olasky: I met Newt Gingrich early in 1995 after I wrote a book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, that he read, liked, and recommended to others. I became an unofficial advisor to him regarding welfare reform that year, and met many of what are now his "former close advisors." I retain a great respect for him but I also wrote a history book in the late 1990s, The American Leadership Tradition, that views unfaithfulness to a wife as often a leading indicator of unfaithfulness to the nation.
This does not mean that a person who has committed adultery will necessarily be a bad president, and it certainly does not mean that someone who is faithful in marriage will be a good president-but, as Gingrich said in 1999, voters "have the right to know everything about a presidential candidate, everything, because they're going to be in an Oval Office with nuclear weapons, and you have the right to know in advance 'Who is this person?'"
During Gingrich's WORLD interview at the end of January he spoke only reluctantly about his own religious beliefs, stating rightly, "I'm not running for chief theologian." When pressed he said he was "born a Lutheran, raised as a general Protestant, became a Baptist, married to a Catholic." He describes himself as "psychologically a Protestant" because of "the opportunity to go directly to God," but he likes "the depth of the Catholic church" and has gone to Mass with his wife, who sings in the choir, for the past six years.
Gingrich also praised the Psalms and "the degree to which salvation is ultimately based on faith, is in fact a leap of faith." He also said he valued "the moment in history when God came to earth, accepted the burden of all our sins, suffered for all of us, and was resurrected." He spoke as he had in the mid-'90s about Christian theology and its historical and social accomplishments. Although Gingrich has frequently spoken and written about the importance of religion, the evangelical fervor of his Dobson interview last month surprised former close advisors.