Cover Story

Has Newt Gingrich changed?

"Has Newt Gingrich changed?" Continued...

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

Suddenly, in November 1994, with the surprising GOP success in the congressional elections, Gingrich became for a short time the most-watched man in American politics. During that short time he may have ceased his adultery: A team of television journalists caught wind of his conduct and staked out his Capitol Hill apartment for a week, without success. But that self-control was apparently short-lived. Security guards later told Armey that Bisek came to Gingrich's apartment building so often they thought she lived there.

So much for the personal story, but many 1990s GOP leaders still wonder whether Gingrich's private conduct affected the way he carried out his public responsibilities. They replied-some on the record, some on background-to three questions of mine with facts and theories:

First, did President Clinton know about Gingrich's affair?

Second, if Clinton knew, why wouldn't he have arranged for this information about a political enemy to go public, or used it privately to pressure Gingrich?

Third, did Gingrich's actions at some point indicate that he was pulling punches to preserve his reputation?

Then comes the question that moves from past to urgent present, now that he is running third in the early presidential candidate polls: Who do you think Newt Gingrich is now?

Did Clinton know? One possible source of information was Beryl Anthony, D-Ark. The brother-in-law of Vince Foster, the Clinton confidante who committed suicide in 1993, Anthony is now a retiree who spends part of the year in western North Carolina. He told me that in 1994, "I called the press and told them there was a story that they should pursue." But Anthony denies having told anyone in the White House.

Journalists who for various reasons did not pursue the Gingrich rumors were another possible conduit. David Corn, then Washington editor for the left-wing magazine The Nation, has mourned "The Big One That Got Away." Corn had heard about Gingrich's affair but did not keep poking around. The one hint in a major newspaper or magazine came in a 1995 Vanity Fair article by Gail Sheehy, who wrote that Gingrich had "female admirers" including "Callista Bisek, a former aide in Congressman Steve Gunderson's office who has been a favorite breakfast companion."

By 1996, the porn magazine Hustler also was aware of the affair, according to publisher Larry Flynt's later account. Once the affair became public in 1999, residents of Whitehall, Wis., the hometown of Rep. Gunderson and Bisek, said rumors of the affair had long swirled around. (New York Post headline, "NEWTIE'S CUTIE COULDN'T KEEP A SECRET.")

One likely conduit-according to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., former Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., and others-was Rep. Gunderson, who now runs an association for charitable foundations. As a congressman, Gunderson hired Bisek and helped her move to the Agriculture Committee staff where she served as an assistant clerk. Frank told me regarding Gingrich's affair that "Gunderson knew about it. He was complicit."

In 1989, when House Minority Whip Dick Cheney became secretary of defense, Gunderson managed Gingrich's campaign to succeed Cheney. Gingrich won 87 to 85 and Gunderson became chief deputy minority whip. Gunderson resigned his leadership position in 1993, decrying what he called the Republican move to the "hard-right." He retired from Congress in 1996.

By then Gunderson was open about his homosexuality, and that created tensions. Gunderson had problems to the right-Dornan was his particular nemesis-and on the left, as Barney Frank, D-Mass., criticized Gunderson's ties to Gingrich and other conservatives: "He's helping people who are very anti-gay to appear a little less nasty." Dornan says he confronted Gingrich once in late 2000 or early 2001 in a Fox green room and told him, "Newt, you know that Steve Gunderson was telling Barney Frank everything about Callista. They were jerking your chain." Dornan says Gingrich responded, "Well, I always thought they knew."

Dornan says the transmission chain was Gunderson to Democrats and onward to Clinton. Frank said he heard about the affair in 1998 but did not tell anyone. Gunderson did not respond to my request for comment. Other former congressmen thought the Gunderson scenario made sense, but Armey thinks it's more likely that transmission came through the Agriculture Committee staff, where Bisek worked and Democrats and Republicans worked together closely to promote their interests: "If anyone on the Ag staff knew, the Democrats would know about it." Democrat Anthony speculates that news would have flowed to the White House through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Whatever the conduit, all the sources for this part of the story agreed that once Gingrich became speaker, those most committed to studying his activities would learn about his adultery.

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