Newt's glass house

Newt Gingrich is reluctant to stone President Clinton for adultery, not out of Christian compassion, but because he lives in a very fragile glass house.

Published August 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Newt Gingrich did a strange thing this week: He restrained himself.

You would have expected the notoriously ill-tempered speaker of the House to savage a wounded President Clinton after the president's humiliating Monica Lewinsky confession. In the heady days of the short-lived "Republican Revolution" (1994-95), Gingrich was an unleashed pit bull who never missed an opportunity to sink his teeth into the president's exposed flesh. But now Newt is subdued, his criticism of Clinton muted.

While House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt condemned Clinton's behavior as "reprehensible" and refused to rule out impeachment (later softening his rhetoric), Gingrich cautioned that the Lewinsky affair alone does not justify an impeachment inquiry. The Georgia Republican told the Washington Post that he believed only "a pattern of felonies" and "not a single human mistake" could constitute grounds for impeachment.

"I don't think the Congress could move forward only on Lewinsky," Gingrich said. Instead, Gingrich wants to return to Whitewater and other investigations of the president, even if Kenneth Starr's report to Congress is limited to Lewinsky.

It's tempting to congratulate Gingrich for his understanding of human frailty, but don't mistake his comments for Christian charity. The rabidly partisan Gingrich would love to bring down Clinton. Forcing a Democratic president to resign would be sweet revenge for Gingrich, who cast himself as Richard Nixon in his high school play and has always admired the disgraced Watergate villain.

No, it's not compassion that tempers the speaker's censure of Clinton's self-destructive sexual compulsions. It's self-protection. Gingrich, lest we forget, has a closet full of sexual misconduct.

For one thing, Gingrich pioneered a denial of adultery that some observers would later christen "the Newt Defense": Oral sex doesn't count. In a revealing psychological portrait of the "inner" Gingrich that appeared in Vanity Fair (September 1995), Gail Sheehy uncovered a woman, Anne Manning, who had an affair in Washington in 1977 with a married Gingrich.

"We had oral sex," Manning revealed. "He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'" She added that Gingrich threatened her: "If you ever tell anybody about this, I'll say you're lying."

Manning was then married to a professor at West Georgia, the backwater college where Gingrich taught. "I don't claim to be an angel," she told Sheehy, but "he's morally dishonest."

Gingrich refused to comment on Manning's charges, though he has admitted sexual indiscretions during his first marriage -- hey, it was the '70s, man! But Newt's oral sex denial proved embarrassing at a time when he was the secular leader of the "family values" crowd, appearing frequently at Christian Coalition gatherings.

During Gingrich's 1995 summer book tour, when he was testing the waters for a presidential bid, demonstrators hounded him about his oral sex hypocrisy. I was covering Gingrich for a PBS documentary when the speaker appeared at a book signing in Los Angeles and was confronted by a man waving a Bible and shouting, "I want to know here where it says that oral sex doesn't count as adultery." The gentleman was hustled out of the bookstore by the Secret Service before Gingrich could answer his theological question.

I was shocked to read that Clinton was supposedly considering the Newt Defense in the Lewinsky affair and relieved when he came clean, more or less. Anyone who considers oral sex not to be "sexual relations" is either doing it wrong or is a politician.

So don't expect Gingrich to hector Clinton about adulterous oral sex. He's been there and done that. That's a Pandora's Box he'd rather not re-open.

Like Clinton's, Gingrich's sexual history is old, tangled and furtive. Newt himself is the product of a weekend marriage. His 16-year-old mother, Kit, married hard-drinking, brawling Big Newt McPherson, whom she met at a roller rink. But she quit the marriage after just three days when he hit her. "I wanted to break our engagement," the chain-smoking Kit told me at her home in eastern Pennsylvania. "But then we wouldn't have Newtie."

In return for being allowed to skip his child-support payments, Big Newt later gave up all rights to his son and allowed Kit and her second husband, Bob Gingrich, to adopt the boy.

As a high school student -- precocious, lonely, overweight -- Newt secretly romanced his geometry teacher, a buxom, matronly woman named Jackie Battley. The furtive romance with his 24-year-old teacher included nighttime sessions in the back of a car in remote areas of Fort Benning, Ga.

Once, Newt and Jackie were so worked up, they got their car caught in a tank trap on the military base and had to call his best friend to rescue them before a daylight exposi, according to the friend's widow, Linda Tilton. Defying his stepfather, a stern Army colonel, Newt pursued Jackie, married her and promptly had two children.

Jackie Gingrich raised the daughters, worked to put Newt through graduate school and was a loyal political wife during his two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress in 1974 and 1976. In his make-or-break 1978 race, Gingrich enlisted Jackie to attack his female opponent, who had announced that if elected she would commute to Washington and allow her family to remain in Georgia. At Gingrich's instigation, Jackie wrote a campaign letter declaring that Newt was a fine husband and would take his family with him, although his top aides already knew Gingrich was having affairs and the marriage was falling apart.

The most notorious incident in Gingrich's marriage -- first reported by David Osborne in Mother Jones magazine in 1984 -- was when he cornered Jackie in her hospital room where she was recovering from uterine cancer surgery and insisted on discussing the terms of the divorce he was seeking.

Shortly after that infamous encounter, Gingrich refused to pay his alimony and child-support payments. The First Baptist Church in his hometown had to take up a collection to support the family Gingrich had deserted.

Six months after divorcing Jackie, Gingrich married a younger woman, Marianne, with whom he had been having an affair. They are still married, despite persistent (though unproven) rumors that Gingrich has had other dalliances.

When the speaker was considering a presidential race in 1996, Marianne Gingrich provoked a controversy by telling Vanity Fair, "I don't want him to be president and I don't think he should be."

You can understand why Gingrich may well pause before seeking to impeach Clinton on matters of sexual deceit and immorality. A politician who has been an adulterer, a hypocritical practitioner of oral sex, a cruel and insensitive husband and a deadbeat dad just might want to avoid that sort of public debate.

Of course, Gingrich could go after Clinton and Vice President Al Gore on grounds of violating campaign finance law. But here, too, he is encumbered. Gingrich is still paying off his $300,000 fine by the House Ethics Committee for financial improprieties. And his own history of fund-raising, book deals and marketing of his controversial televised college course is riddled with conflicts of interest.

Moreover, there may be no more hypocritical photo op available than the 1995 Clinton-Gingrich handshake in New Hampshire, when both pledged to seek genuine campaign-finance reform. Ever since, Gingrich has done whatever he could to stymie such legislation, even when it's sponsored by a Republican such as Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Last Saturday Gingrich blithely attended an extravagant fund-raiser outside Seattle at the estate of a man who admitted violating federal election law and paid a $5 million fine. Thomas Stewart, the chief executive of Food Services of America, hid $100,000 in GOP campaign contributions by making them in the names of his employees. Stewart recently completed two months of home detention.

Attending Stewart's fund-raising picnic doesn't seem like the kind of thing a speaker of the House should do just before embarking on a crusade to nail Gore for allegedly soliciting "hard money" donations from his office, or probe Clinton's notorious 1996 fund-raising escapades. But Gingrich went anyway.

When it comes to sex, money and the White House, Gingrich is wise to remain hesitant to resume his once obligatory role of attack dog. Better that he growl harmlessly, while staying securely on his leash.

By Stephen Talbot

Stephen Talbot is a producer for ITVS / Independent Lens, based in San Francisco.

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Bill Clinton Infidelity Newt Gingrich