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Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall

Has Newt Gingrich changed?

Campaign 2012 | Questions about the past: Did Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich have secret meetings prior to Clinton's impeachment hearings? How wide was the knowledge of Gingrich's extramarital affairs? Did Clinton know? Did Clinton's knowledge affect Gingrich's actions? The question for the present: What does Gingrich's conduct then, and the way he has dealt with it, tell us about him today?

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has long been seen as a person more suited to punditry than the presidency. (See "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007.) Successful columnists go wild with big ideas-as Gingrich has-but a president has to be extraordinarily careful in what he says and what he does. He does not have to be the idea creator himself but must be a good judge of the ideas of others.

Gingrich says he has changed and become more self-disciplined, but since he has been out of public office for 13 years he hasn't had the opportunity to show the New Newt. Other questions about Gingrich stem from his marital history: He twice dumped wives while they were ill and married much younger women with whom he had been committing adultery. Gingrich was 56 at the time of his last divorce.

But Gingrich says he has also changed spiritually and is now a serious Catholic. He is appealing to Christian voters by campaigning at events put on by groups like the Minnesota Family Council, where-as wife Callista recounted-"we screened our documentary film, Rediscovering God in America, and Newt gave a speech about reconnecting faith, family, and freedom in America." Gingrich said on the Christian Broadcasting Network, "Things happened in my life that were not appropriate. . . . I felt compelled to seek God's forgiveness."

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What about the forgiveness of political allies whose trust they say he betrayed?

Last month eight of Gingrich's former House colleagues told me in hours of telephone conversations that Gingrich hasn't sought it. As former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., put it, "I do not recall Newt ever apologizing to the caucus about his affair. It is one of the gaping holes in the story. . . . It is almost unforgivable and a real weakness of leadership when you jeopardize your followers. . . . Why should those who followed him in 1998 follow him now? Will he put his followers at risk again?"

My interviewing was part of an attempt to reexamine an extraordinary statement by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Gingrich's chief lieutenant from 1995 through 1998. In the course of a long interview last fall, he told me that President Bill Clinton "found out about the Gingrich affair and called Newt over to the White House for a private meeting between the two of them." Armey argued that Clinton pressured Gingrich to go easy on that year's impeachment drive "or I'll start telling your story." He claimed the two leaders "had many meetings that we didn't know about where they'd drink wine and smoke cigars and talk about their girlfriends."

When Gingrich's press secretary complained about Armey's statement, I told him WORLD would be glad to print a rebuttal. The Gingrich aide didn't pursue it, and at the time it didn't seem important to probe any further the character of Newt Gingrich, private citizen. All that changed when Gingrich announced his campaign for the presidency on May 11. Armey said the story originated with a Gingrich confidante or Republican leader from the 1990s, but he could not remember which one. Interviews with former congressmen Tom DeLay, Bob Livingston, Bob Dornan, and many other GOP generals and sergeants turned up no one willing to acknowledge that role. Gingrich in an email to me insisted, "I never discussed my personal life with Clinton."

Gingrich did partially clear up one mystery: University of Oklahoma historian Steve Gillon, who documented in The Pact (2007) several semi-private meetings to discuss Social Security that Clinton and Gingrich had with their chiefs of staff present, told me that Gingrich had once mentioned a private session with Clinton at the White House where he drank Irish whiskey. When Gillon during that and subsequent interviews asked for details, Gingrich clammed up. This time, though, Gingrich admitted via email that they occurred: "The private sessions with Clinton were about the future." A Gingrich ally told me the former speaker had told him there were two such meetings.

In the absence of testimony from either Bill Clinton or someone who heard from Gingrich directly an account of these secret meetings, Armey's story is unconfirmable. His overall point, though, was that Gingrich had been extraordinarily reckless and had left himself open to pressure that the White House was willing to use. Such conduct, he suggested, means that Gingrich's candidacy is not worthy of support.

One overlooked part of the story is that when Gingrich's affair began, in 1993, it was morally wrong but-politically-perhaps not as astoundingly reckless as it now appears. Gingrich then was House minority whip, but Republicans hadn't had a House majority for nearly four decades and almost no one expected them to have one anytime soon. Senior Democrat Wilbur Mills two decades before, and presidential candidate Gary Hart a decade earlier, had fallen politically through sex scandals, but minority whips did not get that much public attention. Gingrich met Callista Bisek at a fundraiser for his friend, Rep. Steve Gunderson: Bisek and Gunderson came from the same town in Wisconsin, and he had hired her for his staff. Gingrich's second wife Marianne was rarely in Washington. The last six of their 12 years of marriage had been rocky. She knew him too well to idolize him. Now a cute 27-year-old Midwesterner did.


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