Estrich: Gingrich has baggage packed

Unlike Cain, he has answers prepared for controversial past

By Susan Estrich, Columbian syndicated columnist

Published:

 

If you take a gander at Newt Gingrich’s Wikipedia page, in the personal section, you’ll see quite a pile of baggage. Most of us have some. He has more than most: three marriages, messy divorces, affairs, etc. But here’s the difference between Gingrich, the experienced politician, and the hopelessly inexperienced Herman Cain. Newt’s baggage is all packed up — which is what you’re supposed to do with your baggage before you take off on a presidential campaign, not in the middle of it.

None of this is new. Newt’s first wife, Jackie Battley, was his high school geometry teacher. He was 19 when they married; she was seven years older. The marriage lasted 18 years, until Newt took up with Marianne Ginther, whom he married in 1981. Back in 1985, Battley told The Washington Post a story that has since become apocryphal: Newt and the children went to visit her in the hospital while she was recovering from surgery for ovarian cancer, and Newt wanted to discuss the divorce. Ouch.

A little worse than Cain’s fondling? Except — nota bene — Gingrich cleaned that one up earlier this year. Not only did he dispute the account, but Jackie Gingrich Cushman, one of his two daughters from that marriage, wrote a column for Creators Syndicate (also my syndicate) titled “Setting the Record Straight” in which she insisted that it was not cancer at all, that her mother requested the divorce prior to the hospital stay, and that her father had taken them to the hospital to visit their mother and not to discuss the divorce.

Are you listening, Herman Cain? We call this damage control.

Today, both of the Gingrich daughters work with their dad. One runs Gingrich Communications, and the other is a conservative columnist and commentator who co-authored “5 Principles for a Successful Life” with her dad.

A messy case

There isn’t much about Ginther in Wikipedia, but another website notes that the couple lived apart for some years before he took up with his current wife, Callista Bisek, then a House staffer.

Now this one is messy: There he was, heading the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton for his relationship with an intern while having his own affair with a congressional staffer 23 years his junior. What do you do? You give an interview before your campaign takes off, to a friendly reporter, effectively apologizing. Or as Newt told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network earlier this year, “There’s no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Now, I’m not sure how sleeping with a staffer relates to passion about this country, but the point is that Newt got it out there and did his mea culpa. He didn’t stonewall (Cain’s first response); he didn’t deny it all (Cain’s second response); he didn’t send out his lawyer to threaten his accusers (Cain’s third response). He put it out, apologized and turned it into old news.

Callista, according to her bio, is a devout Catholic. A devout Catholic married to a guy who’s on his third marriage and has had two extramarital affairs? Yep. Turns out Newt converted to Catholicism in 2009: “Over the course of several years, I gradually became Catholic and then decided one day to accept the faith I had already come to embrace.” It was “catching a glimpse” of Pope Benedict during his 2008 visit to the United States that did it: “I was struck by the happiness and peacefulness he exuded. The joyful and radiating presence of the Holy Father was a moment of confirmation about the many things I had been thinking and experiencing for several years.”

Since becoming a Catholic, he has developed a deeper appreciation of the role of faith in public life. Yes, once again, it was earlier this year that Newt said: “In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life.” You hear that, Iowa (where religious conservatives dominate)?

Now that Gingrich is climbing in the polls, all of the marriages and the rest will recirculate in the political press. But unlike Cain’s baggage, Gingrich’s is old news packaged for public consumption and is therefore far less likely to derail his efforts.

A cynic might say Gingrich has reassembled his life story with the same political skill set that he used to come up with the Contract with America back in 1994, which led to the Republican takeover of the House. That’s probably true. But it takes precisely such a political skill set to be a successful presidential candidate.