NEWTON LEROY “NEWT” GINGRICH
Born in Harrisburg, Penn., in 1943, Newt Gingrich, a former history professor, writer, and documentarian, now 78 and living in McLean, Va., was quite the talk of Washington in his day. He earned a BA in history from Emory University in 1965, and a PhD in modern European history from Tulane University in 1971. A congressman from north Atlanta, he became speaker of the House of Representatives in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, in which the GOP gained 54 seats in the House and nine in the Senate, ending a 40-year reign by Democrats. Time magazine named Gingrich its 1995 “Man of the Year” for his role in the election.
Gingrich was brash and outspoken, and his power was short-lived. While he won reelection to Congress in 1996 and 1998, he faced 84 ethics charges by Democrats, although just one stuck: claiming tax-exempt status for a college course run for political purposes. He was officially reprimanded by a vote of 395 to 28, and fined $300,000 (the cost of the investigation).
Other exploits outside of Congress also contributed to his loss of popularity, including two divorces after 19 years of marriage each, in 1981 and 2000, when he married his third wife, Callista, who became Donald Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican. (The Gingriches were quarantined in Italy during Covid, leaving in January 2021 when President Biden took office.) Callista testified in 1999 as part of Gingrich’s divorce proceedings that the couple began a six-year affair in 1993 while Newt was married to his second wife, Marianne. Newt divorced Marianne in December 1999, and in August 2000, Callista and Newt were married.
Raised as a Lutheran, Gingrich was a Southern Baptist in graduate school. In 2002, he asked the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta to annul his marriage to Marianne on the basis that she had been previously married. This was approved and, due to his first wife’s being deceased, the Church recognized his marriage to Callista. A lifelong Catholic, Callista was instrumental in her husband’s conversion to that faith in 2009.
In 2015, Gingrich served as co-chair of Catholics 4 Trump, along with American Conservative Union head Matt Schlapp, and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, a former director of strategic communications for the Trump White House. A strong and consistent conservative, as Speaker, Gingrich sought to increasingly tie Christian conservatism to the Republican Party.
Gingrich oversaw passage by the House of welfare reform and a capital gains tax cut, and played a key role in two government shutdowns. He is also known for the “Contract with America,” rolled out during the 1994 campaign and seen as a triumph by conservative leaders in its support of shrinking the size of government and promoting lower taxes and welfare reform. (In December 2021 it was reported that Gingrich is working with Trump to update the “Contract with America” for the 2022 midterm campaign.) In addition, Gingrich was a leader in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton on a party-line vote in the House.
In 1997, several House Republicans attempted to replace him as Speaker, claiming Gingrich’s public image was a liability. Gingrich resigned the speakership in 1998 and his House seat in January 1999. In 2010, he described the Tea Party’s sentiment toward Washington as “natural” and argued that people are entitled to the “pursuit of happiness.” In 2012 he ran, briefly and unsuccessfully, for the Republican nomination for president.
Perhaps his greatest legacy is this country’s current political divisiveness. Several political scientists have credited Gingrich with playing a key role in undermining democratic norms in the United States and hastening political polarization and partisanship. Two Harvard professors point out that Gingrich’s speakership instilled a “combative” approach in the Republican Party, where hateful language and hyper-partisanship became commonplace, displacing collegial and bipartisan norms. This “new normal” persists to the present.
One way in which Gingrich accomplished this was by raising highly charged cultural issues in Congress, proposing constitutional amendments to allow prayer in public schools and to ban the burning of the American flag, flash point issues that were widely popular among conservatives – especially among southern voters. In 1998, The New York Times wrote of Gingrich that he was “an expert in how to seize power, but a novice in holding it,” saying further that he “illustrated how hard it is for a radical, polarizing figure to last in leadership.”
Since leaving the House, Gingrich has remained active in public policy debates (giving speeches for $36,000 an hour) and working as a political consultant. He also founded and chaired several policy think tanks. Gingrich later emerged as a key ally of Donald Trump’s, and was reportedly among the finalists on Trump’s short list for running mate in the 2016 election. In 2020, Gingrich supported Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, declaring the day after the election that “the president should be prepared to file suit in every single state.” In the following days, he called for the arrest of election workers and for votes from entire precincts to be thrown out, describing the election as “a left-wing power grab financed by people like George Soros.”