The truth about Newt and his cancer-stricken wife

How Newt Gingrich's bedside visit with his hospitalized first wife has haunted him for three decades

Topics: Newt Gingrich, War Room,

The truth about Newt and his cancer-stricken wife

For almost three decades, Newt Gingrich has been dogged by a single devastating anecdote from his past, one that has been repeated in the national press hundreds of times and that has arguably come to define his political persona. After being elected to Congress in 1978 on a family values platform, the story goes, he visited his wife Jackie, who was in the hospital recovering from an operation for uterine cancer, and demanded that she discuss terms of their divorce.

It’s a story that, remarkably, Gingrich disputes to this day. Testament to how deeply it has reverberated, some version of the story — often rendered as Gingrich “serving divorce papers” to his wife in the hospital — has been cited in the last month alone by Slate, MSNBC, Politico, Commentary and the New York Times, among other outlets.

The pattern of attention on the episode when Gingrich is in the news — this time for exploring a presidential bid — has been repeated ever since the anecdote originally appeared in the first big national profile of the then-Georgia congressman. That was a 1984 piece in Mother Jones written by David Osborne and headlined “Newt Gingrich: Shining Knight of the Post-Reagan Right.”

“We thought it was going to be a piece about an intellectually interesting Republican,” Osborne, who later worked for Vice President Al Gore and is now a consultant, told me. But when Osborne started talking to former Gingrich staffers and his ex-wife Jackie, he got some explosive material on Gingrich’s alleged hypocrisy and moral failings, and the magazine rushed the story to publication before the 1984 election.

Here’s how Mother Jones recounted Newt’s hospital visit with Jackie, who was her husband’s former high school math teacher:

Jackie had undergone surgery for cancer of the uterus during the 1978 campaign, a fact Gingrich was not loath to use in conversations or speeches that year. After the separation in 1980, she had to be operated on again, to remove another tumor While she was still in the hospital, according to Howell, “Newt came up there with his yellow legal pad, and he had a list of things on how the divorce was going to be handled. He wanted her to sign it. She was still recovering from surgery, still sort of out of it, and he comes in with a yellow sheet of paper, handwritten, and wants her to sign it.



The source was Lee Howell, a former Gingrich campaign press secretary who had been the editor of the student newspaper at West Georgia College, where Gingrich was a history professor. As Osborne told me this week: “Most Gingrich staff people felt burned by the time they left. Howell was one of those people. But I also got [the story] from Jackie.”

Interestingly, the hospital bed visit was hardly the most salacious detail in the piece — though some of the other material was based on anonymous sources:

One former aide describes approaching a car with Gingrich’s daughters in hand, only to find the candidate with a woman, her head buried in his lap. The aide quickly turned and led the girls away. Another former friend maintains that Gingrich repeatedly made sexual advances to her when her husband was out of town. On one occasion, he visited under the guise of comforting her after the death of a relative, and instead tried to seduce her. In certain circles in the mid-1970s, Gingrich was developing a reputation as a ladies’ man.

A few months later, after the Mother Jones piece had been sent around en masse by Gingrich’s political enemies — and placed in the Congressional Record by giddy Democrats — he told the Washington Post: “I am not going to argue every point of that story, but I will say that it painted a picture of me that is essentially untrue.”

That same Post profile quoted Jackie herself giving a slightly different version of the story (one that doesn’t mention any legal pad):

“He can say that we had been talking about [a divorce] for 10 years, but the truth is that it came as a complete surprise,” says Jackie Gingrich, in a telephone interview from Carrollton. “He’s a great wordsmith … He walked out in the spring of 1980 and I returned to Georgia. By September, I went into the hospital for my third surgery. The two girls came to see me, and said Daddy is downstairs and could he come up? When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from the surgery … To say I gave up a lot for the marriage is the understatement of the year.”

Asked if, in fact, he handled the divorce as insensitively as portrayed, Gingrich responded: “All I can say is when you’ve been talking about divorce for 11 years and you’ve gone to a marriage counselor, and the other person doesn’t want the divorce, I’m not sure there is any sensitive way to handle it.”

Asked about the hospital story, Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler told me: “He was taking his two daughters to see their mother in the hospital. When they were at the hospital they got in an argument. That is the extent of what happened.” Asked about any yellow legal pad or discussion of divorce terms, Tyler said: “That didn’t happen. It was unfortunate and regrettable that he got in an argument.”

After the Mother Jones piece, every big Gingrich profile touched on the hospital encounter with Jackie.

In 1992, Gingrich, then House minority whip, faced a challenge from Tony Center, a Democratic attorney. Center  ran a brutal ad against Gingrich saying that the congressman “delivered divorce papers to his wife the day after her cancer operation.” It went on: “the same Newt Gingrich who used taxpayer money for his limo had to be ordered by the court to pay for kids’ heat and electricity. No more perks. No more lies. No more Newt.”

Gingrich went on to win that election handily, but not before claiming he was so disgusted by the level of “filth” and “degradation” in politics that he had considered dropping out of the race.

When Gingrich won reelection in 1994, just before he ascended to the speakership, the cartoonist Mike Luckovich drew an item that showed the congressman “flanked by two brazen-looking beauties labeled ‘D.C. highrollers,’ with the three of them hovering over the hospital bed of a sickly looking woman labeled ‘Georgia constituents,’” the AP reported. The top of the comic read, “I want a divorce.” In retaliation, a furious Gingrich barred reporters from Luckovich’s paper, the Atlanta Constitution, from his victory night party.

The anecdote was repeated ad nauseam when Gingrich became House speaker in 1995. Then it was repeated ad nauseam when he filed for divorce with his second wife, Marianne, in 1999. The story came up again in the mid-2000s when Gingrich was openly mulling a 2008 presidential bid. In 2007, when Gingrich told James Dobson in a radio interview that he had in the 1990s cheated on his second wife (with his current wife, Callista), several stories about the admission also noted the 1980 hospital encounter.

If Gingrich is really serious about a 2012 candidacy, expect the hospital story to stay with him throughout the campaign.

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>