Five years ago, I chased the story that Speaker Newt "Family Values" Gingrich was messing around with a young Capitol Hill staffer, but I just couldn't pin it down. Now the tabloids have "outed" him.
These days, Newt Gingrich may be little more than a political has-been whose policy pronouncements barely register in the press, but his sex life, apparently, still can make headlines.
After learning that the Star magazine would publish an article on the alleged extramarital affair between the former House speaker and a congressional aide named Calista Bisek, the New York Post and the New York Daily News both rushed out breathless stories on the supposed tryst — which Gingrich and Bisek would neither confirm nor deny.
“Newt’s Fooling Around with His Girl on the Hill,” shouted the Post headline.
The Daily News Web site polled readers: “Do you think Newt Gingrich is a hypocrite?”
Short answer: Of course. This is a guy who gained the speakership of the House of Representatives by posing as a champion of family values. Remember how Gingrich repeatedly referred to liberals and Democrats as deviants and miscreants? And, later, how he gleefully tried to exploit Monicagate?
Well, Gingrich, the advocate of families, informed his first wife he was divorcing her when she was ill with cancer. Now, he is divorcing his second wife, Marianne, and a tabloid will soon publish a picture of him holding hands with his much-younger girlfriend.
As far as inveterate Newt-watchers are concerned, however, the Gingrich-Bisek story is old news. For years, word of this relationship was commonplace on the Hill. It was one of those “everybody-knows-it” stories that seem to float endlessly around Washington.
Unfortunately, such stories can be the most difficult to prove. I should know, for I tried to prove this one back in 1994.
It was the time of Gingrich’s ascendance to power. After years as a backbencher, he had led the Republicans to a historic election victory that wrested control of the House from the Democrats for the first time in four decades. Newt was riding high and talking the family values talk.
Democratic aides on Capitol Hill, who long had traded in gossip about Gingrich’s extramarital recreations, were beside themselves with anger. From such sources, I received a number of leads and tales. My favorite was from an aide who swore she had once spotted Gingrich’s pale-green Mustang bouncing up and down in an underground House parking garage, with the windows all fogged up — signs that not-so-conservative behavior may have been occurring within.
The aide said she had tried to peer through the condensation to determine with whom Gingrich was rocking and rolling, but that she just couldn’t get a clear-enough view.
After all, it could have been his wife.
In any event, the most prevalent rumor concerned the supposed relationship between Gingrich and Bisek, 23 years his junior. A close friend of mine told me that Bisek had talked openly to a co-worker about her affair with Newt. But the co-worker turned out to be a loyal Republican who would not talk to me.
Hill aides further reported that Bisek and Gingrich routinely had breakfast together at the Supreme Court cafeteria. That seemed plausible enough, since Gingrich’s Capitol Hill apartment was right across the street from the Court, in the same building, in fact, as my office.
Chasing after any politician’s personal life raised awkward questions for me — this was before Monicagate — but it seemed justified in this case if the leading family-values campaigner was in fact nothing more than a rank hypocrite.
But how do you prove a sexual affair between two adults? Reporters cannot subpoena dresses and compel DNA submissions. Even if you catch sight of the two together — say, at breakfast in the Supreme Court cafeteria — what is that supposed to mean?
As I pondered how to proceed, I was contacted by the producer of a tabloid television show who had heard what I was up to; he offered to set up a stakeout in front of Gingrich’s apartment. For a week, the show’s staff watched for Bisek coming or going, especially at odd times like late at night and early in the morning.
Yet there was no sign of her. My guess at the time was that Gingrich, just weeks away from being handed the speaker’s gavel, realized he was under intense scrutiny, and may therefore have been acting with more caution than previously had seemed necessary to him.
The show’s correspondent finally managed to obtain some video footage of Bisek as she left her own condominium in northern Virginia one day, but that hardly made for a story. Not to worry, however; he would find an excuse to air the video soon enough, even though our mutual effort to nail down the affair was turning into a bust.
Soon, Gingrich was sworn in as speaker. None of the reporters chasing the story, including me, wrote about the Gingrich-Bisek affair. But whenever I saw his wife, Marianne, in our building I felt sorry for her. If I — and practically everyone else in Washington — had heard of the liaison, I had to assume that she had, too.
Months later, in a Vanity Fair profile of Gingrich, Gail Sheehy partly outed Bisek as Gingrich’s “frequent breakfast companion.” This was, I believe, the first public mention of their relationship. The Vanity Fair piece, in turn, gave the tabloid TV show cause to air its “exclusive” video tape of Bisek leaving her apartment.
Clearly, Sheehy had heard the same rumors I had, and also couldn’t prove them. But she had devised a clever way to transmit the information to her readers. It was a pretty unfair hit on Newt, though, when so little evidence was available to substantiate the insinuation, even if it may now appear to have been true.
A couple of weeks ago, on July 29, Gingrich filed divorce papers to end his second marriage, but “congressional sources” told the New York Post that the Bisek affair was not the reason for his breakup with Marianne.
Still, the Post also reported that Gingrich has been taking Bisek to dinner with friends. It seems that the Gingrich secret that “everybody” in Washington once knew to be true is finally about to be shared with the public at large.
David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press). More David Corn.
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