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Has Newt Gingrich changed?

Questions about the past: Did Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich have secret meetings prior to Clinton's impeachment hearings?

Has Newt Gingrich changed?

(Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall)

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has long been seen as a person more suited to punditry than the presidency. (See "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007.) Successful columnists go wild with big ideas-as Gingrich has-but a president has to be extraordinarily careful in what he says and what he does. He does not have to be the idea creator himself but must be a good judge of the ideas of others.

Gingrich says he has changed and become more self-disciplined, but since he has been out of public office for 13 years he hasn't had the opportunity to show the New Newt. Other questions about Gingrich stem from his marital history: He twice dumped wives while they were ill and married much younger women with whom he had been committing adultery. Gingrich was 56 at the time of his last divorce.

But Gingrich says he has also changed spiritually and is now a serious Catholic. He is appealing to Christian voters by campaigning at events put on by groups like the Minnesota Family Council, where-as wife Callista recounted-"we screened our documentary film, Rediscovering God in America, and Newt gave a speech about reconnecting faith, family, and freedom in America." Gingrich said on the Christian Broadcasting Network, "Things happened in my life that were not appropriate. . . . I felt compelled to seek God's forgiveness."

What about the forgiveness of political allies whose trust they say he betrayed?

Last month eight of Gingrich's former House colleagues told me in hours of telephone conversations that Gingrich hasn't sought it. As former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., put it, "I do not recall Newt ever apologizing to the caucus about his affair. It is one of the gaping holes in the story. . . . It is almost unforgivable and a real weakness of leadership when you jeopardize your followers. . . . Why should those who followed him in 1998 follow him now? Will he put his followers at risk again?"

My interviewing was part of an attempt to reexamine an extraordinary statement by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Gingrich's chief lieutenant from 1995 through 1998. In the course of a long interview last fall, he told me that President Bill Clinton "found out about the Gingrich affair and called Newt over to the White House for a private meeting between the two of them." Armey argued that Clinton pressured Gingrich to go easy on that year's impeachment drive "or I'll start telling your story." He claimed the two leaders "had many meetings that we didn't know about where they'd drink wine and smoke cigars and talk about their girlfriends."

When Gingrich's press secretary complained about Armey's statement, I told him WORLD would be glad to print a rebuttal. The Gingrich aide didn't pursue it, and at the time it didn't seem important to probe any further the character of Newt Gingrich, private citizen. All that changed when Gingrich announced his campaign for the presidency on May 11. Armey said the story originated with a Gingrich confidante or Republican leader from the 1990s, but he could not remember which one. Interviews with former congressmen Tom DeLay, Bob Livingston, Bob Dornan, and many other GOP generals and sergeants turned up no one willing to acknowledge that role. Gingrich in an email to me insisted, "I never discussed my personal life with Clinton."

Gingrich did partially clear up one mystery: University of Oklahoma historian Steve Gillon, who documented in The Pact (2007) several semi-private meetings to discuss Social Security that Clinton and Gingrich had with their chiefs of staff present, told me that Gingrich had once mentioned a private session with Clinton at the White House where he drank Irish whiskey. When Gillon during that and subsequent interviews asked for details, Gingrich clammed up. This time, though, Gingrich admitted via email that they occurred: "The private sessions with Clinton were about the future." A Gingrich ally told me the former speaker had told him there were two such meetings.

In the absence of testimony from either Bill Clinton or someone who heard from Gingrich directly an account of these secret meetings, Armey's story is unconfirmable. His overall point, though, was that Gingrich had been extraordinarily reckless and had left himself open to pressure that the White House was willing to use. Such conduct, he suggested, means that Gingrich's candidacy is not worthy of support.

One overlooked part of the story is that when Gingrich's affair began, in 1993, it was morally wrong but-politically-perhaps not as astoundingly reckless as it now appears. Gingrich then was House minority whip, but Republicans hadn't had a House majority for nearly four decades and almost no one expected them to have one anytime soon. Senior Democrat Wilbur Mills two decades before, and presidential candidate Gary Hart a decade earlier, had fallen politically through sex scandals, but minority whips did not get that much public attention. Gingrich met Callista Bisek at a fundraiser for his friend, Rep. Steve Gunderson: Bisek and Gunderson came from the same town in Wisconsin, and he had hired her for his staff. Gingrich's second wife Marianne was rarely in Washington. The last six of their 12 years of marriage had been rocky. She knew him too well to idolize him. Now a cute 27-year-old Midwesterner did.

Suddenly, in November 1994, with the surprising GOP success in the congressional elections, Gingrich became for a short time the most-watched man in American politics. During that short time he may have ceased his adultery: A team of television journalists caught wind of his conduct and staked out his Capitol Hill apartment for a week, without success. But that self-control was apparently short-lived. Security guards later told Armey that Bisek came to Gingrich's apartment building so often they thought she lived there.

So much for the personal story, but many 1990s GOP leaders still wonder whether Gingrich's private conduct affected the way he carried out his public responsibilities. They replied-some on the record, some on background-to three questions of mine with facts and theories:

First, did President Clinton know about Gingrich's affair?

Second, if Clinton knew, why wouldn't he have arranged for this information about a political enemy to go public, or used it privately to pressure Gingrich?

Third, did Gingrich's actions at some point indicate that he was pulling punches to preserve his reputation?

Then comes the question that moves from past to urgent present, now that he is running third in the early presidential candidate polls: Who do you think Newt Gingrich is now?

Did Clinton know? One possible source of information was Beryl Anthony, D-Ark. The brother-in-law of Vince Foster, the Clinton confidante who committed suicide in 1993, Anthony is now a retiree who spends part of the year in western North Carolina. He told me that in 1994, "I called the press and told them there was a story that they should pursue." But Anthony denies having told anyone in the White House.

Journalists who for various reasons did not pursue the Gingrich rumors were another possible conduit. David Corn, then Washington editor for the left-wing magazine The Nation, has mourned "The Big One That Got Away." Corn had heard about Gingrich's affair but did not keep poking around. The one hint in a major newspaper or magazine came in a 1995 Vanity Fair article by Gail Sheehy, who wrote that Gingrich had "female admirers" including "Callista Bisek, a former aide in Congressman Steve Gunderson's office who has been a favorite breakfast companion."

By 1996, the porn magazine Hustler also was aware of the affair, according to publisher Larry Flynt's later account. Once the affair became public in 1999, residents of Whitehall, Wis., the hometown of Rep. Gunderson and Bisek, said rumors of the affair had long swirled around. (New York Post headline, "NEWTIE'S CUTIE COULDN'T KEEP A SECRET.")

One likely conduit-according to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., former Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., and others-was Rep. Gunderson, who now runs an association for charitable foundations. As a congressman, Gunderson hired Bisek and helped her move to the Agriculture Committee staff where she served as an assistant clerk. Frank told me regarding Gingrich's affair that "Gunderson knew about it. He was complicit."

In 1989, when House Minority Whip Dick Cheney became secretary of defense, Gunderson managed Gingrich's campaign to succeed Cheney. Gingrich won 87 to 85 and Gunderson became chief deputy minority whip. Gunderson resigned his leadership position in 1993, decrying what he called the Republican move to the "hard-right." He retired from Congress in 1996.

By then Gunderson was open about his homosexuality, and that created tensions. Gunderson had problems to the right-Dornan was his particular nemesis-and on the left, as Barney Frank, D-Mass., criticized Gunderson's ties to Gingrich and other conservatives: "He's helping people who are very anti-gay to appear a little less nasty." Dornan says he confronted Gingrich once in late 2000 or early 2001 in a Fox green room and told him, "Newt, you know that Steve Gunderson was telling Barney Frank everything about Callista. They were jerking your chain." Dornan says Gingrich responded, "Well, I always thought they knew."

Dornan says the transmission chain was Gunderson to Democrats and onward to Clinton. Frank said he heard about the affair in 1998 but did not tell anyone. Gunderson did not respond to my request for comment. Other former congressmen thought the Gunderson scenario made sense, but Armey thinks it's more likely that transmission came through the Agriculture Committee staff, where Bisek worked and Democrats and Republicans worked together closely to promote their interests: "If anyone on the Ag staff knew, the Democrats would know about it." Democrat Anthony speculates that news would have flowed to the White House through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Whatever the conduit, all the sources for this part of the story agreed that once Gingrich became speaker, those most committed to studying his activities would learn about his adultery.

If Clinton had this information about Gingrich, why wouldn't he have arranged to have someone on his team leak it to a reporter in a way that would get the news out without White House fingerprints on it? Why wouldn't Carville & Co. have used it in 1998 when Bill Clinton's presidency was hanging by a thread that Republicans were eager to cut? That year the extramarital histories of Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Bob Livingston, R-La., became public. Why not Gingrich's?

One argument is that outing Gingrich was logically inconsistent and politically unnecessary. The Clinton position all along was that his sexual activities were no big deal, so making a big deal of someone else's would seem hypocritical. Given Frank's knowledge, it's significant that Salon.com quoted him in August 1998 as opposing the tactic of bringing up sexual affairs because Clinton would "win the fight without it, and it looks nasty; it looks as if you have no defense. It becomes a mutual suicide."

Another reason is that Clinton involvement in outing others could increase impeachment hazards. Clinton's many supporters argued that the president's perjury was of the garden-variety, self-protective kind seen ever since Eden, not a high crime and misdemeanor. Using executive branch resources to blackmail the highest-ranking member of the House, though, was a different matter that-if it could be traced to the White House-might lead to the impeachment and conviction that Clinton was desperately trying to prevent.

Hustler investigator Dan Moldea, who dug up dirt on Hyde, Livingston, and others, said he knew he "might be called to testify, somewhere or someplace. Consequently, I was extremely careful about whom I did and did not contact. Neither Flynt nor I even considered any communication with anyone at the White House. And the White House never attempted to contact us. . . . No member of our team ever approached any of our targets and posed any threats and/or ultimatums-or participated in any other activity that could even remotely be viewed as blackmail or extortion."

Some doubt that account, and doubt also the view that the best bet for Clintonites was a middle ground between exposing Gingrich and ignoring his affair: Subtly indicating that they knew, with Gingrich's knowledge of their knowledge serving as some restraint on his conduct. James Rogan, a thoughtful member of the House Judiciary Committee then, and now a California Superior Court judge, thinks that theory gives the Clinton administration too much credit: Some might think the White House "had a cruise missile that could have taken out the command and control center of their enemy," but "when I was in D.C. the Clintons knew only one kind of warfare-bare knuckles."

Maybe, but Salon.com often served as a Clinton mouthpiece, so three stories in August 1998 are worth noting. The first, on Aug. 3, noted rumors concerning Gingrich but argued that Clinton should "forswear the kind of nastiness they have deployed against him. To respond in kind would do further harm to the nation without helping him."

The second possible warning shot, on Aug. 5, reported a potential Clinton administration plan to expose GOP sexual improprieties (with Newt Gingrich the first person named as "under scrutiny") and quoted one "close ally of the president" saying, "We're talking about the Doomsday Machine here. Once the Doomsday Machine is set in motion, there will be no stopping it."

The third Salon.com story, on Aug. 28, reported that "Newt Gingrich did a strange thing this week: He restrained himself. . . . Newt is subdued, his criticism of Clinton muted. . . . It's tempting to congratulate Gingrich for his understanding of human frailty, but don't mistake his comments for Christian charity. . . . 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. . . . 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."

Was Gingrich on a leash? Gingrich vigorously denied that in emails to me: "There is no example in my career of my backing down out of fear over anything. . . . My father spent 27 years as an infantryman. One of my closest friends is an 8 year POW in Vietnam. It would be impossible to blackmail me."

For evidence to support his contention that he did not back down in his battles with Bill Clinton, Gingrich pointed to Gillon's The Pact-but that solid historical work does not provide much of a defense. Gillon writes that in 1998 Gingrich "went from blasting Clinton in April for being the most corrupt president in history to giving him a free pass in August"-the month that those Salon.com warnings emerged. Gillon refers to Gingrich as "uncharacteristically uncertain" and sending "mixed signals." He suggests that Gingrich in criticizing Clinton "must have realized that he was vulnerable to similar charges." He reports that conservatives felt Gingrich "had gone soft on the president."

One of Gillon's sentences is particularly memorable: "While listening to a Republican debate about censure, Gingrich stuffed his tie in his mouth and bit it-a sign of his frustration at keeping silent on an issue about which he felt so strongly."

Gingrich also suggested a look at press coverage. That also does not help his case. Reporters who followed Gingrich were surprised to see him, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it in September 1998, "publicly urging caution and forgoing by the dozen opportunities to speak out." Many other journalists were also surprised, as were numerous Republican leaders and Marianne Gingrich herself.

Gingrich's third suggestion, to look at the work of James Rogan, did provide support to his contentions, because Rogan has just published a detailed and well-written memoir of the Clinton impeachment process, Catching Our Flag. Although Rogan does show Gingrich blowing hot and cold, he explains that Gingrich hung back at the request of other Republicans, who saw Henry Hyde as a better face for the House GOP on this issue. Furthermore, Rogan repeatedly reminded Gingrich that he should lie low because of a constitutional conflict of interest: Should Clinton leave office and be replaced by Vice President Al Gore, the speaker of the House was next in line of succession.

Rogan argues that a Gingrich facing White House pressure "would have behaved far differently than he did in my presence," but other congressmen who interacted with Gingrich smelled a rat. Tom DeLay, for example, said, "Newt Gingrich's heart was not in the impeachment. You could tell that he was against everything that was going on." Dornan claims that Gingrich at one point ordered Hyde to "wrap up this investigation or I'm taking it away from you," with the result that the case moved forward without adequate preparation: "Gingrich had cut Henry Hyde's legs off."

Hyde died in 2007. His friend David Schippers, whom Hyde hired to be chief investigative council for the impeachment inquiry, is still angry at Gingrich for, he says, "pulling the plug on everything" except the Lewinsky matter. Clinton committed a wide variety of impeachable offenses, Schippers told me, but Gingrich and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., merely "released all the sexual stuff. That killed us." Schippers, a Chicago Democrat, says Republican Judiciary Committee members were "100 percent Yankee Doodle Dandy Americans. The sellout came from the leadership."

With other parts of the investigation sidelined, Schippers says, the Clinton forces could plausibly claim "it's all about sex." Schippers argued that the ­constitutional conflict of interest problem Rogan cites "could have become overcome immediately" by Gingrich dropping out of proceedings completely, "but he stayed involved. He kept putting up roadblocks."

This investigation started with Dick Armey's contention about Gingrich's meetings with Clinton. Gingrich insists there was no blackmail, and my sense is that he's telling the truth-but knowing blackmail is possible plays on a man's mind. Based on all the interviews, it's clear that Gingrich had secret meetings with Clinton and that Democratic Congressmen Beryl Anthony and Barney Frank knew about Gingrich's affair. It seems highly likely that the White House knew about the affair and that Gingrich suspected Clinton knew. It seems likely that this concern affected his conduct in some way.

One other aspect is clear: Gingrich's affair contributed powerfully to the conclusion reached by many Americans that the GOP was a party of moral hypocrites who talked about family values but did not practice them. He hurt not only his wife but the "Republican revolution" and the followers who trusted him. He cannot succeed now by referring to the harm he did in an offhand way. If Gingrich wants to show that he has changed, he needs to review what he did in greater depth and tell the whole story. He won't win by showing himself as a master of public policy. He needs to show an understanding that honesty is the best policy. He needs to show that he has mastered himself.

What now? Former Rep. Hoekstra's view is mine as well: "Newt is a person I am conflicted about. I like him. He is very smart. But he appears to have an 'I complex' (similar to Obama) that may be a fatal character flaw if he hasn't addressed it. We all make mistakes. We should all learn and change from them. That's the question that needs to be answered about Newt."

Has he changed? One congressional ally of his during the 1990s says, "I don't know. He's struggling." As are many-but they're not all running for president.

For an update, see "Changing horses: GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich suffers exodus of senior campaign staff members," by Marvin Olasky.

Brief chronology

1993: Gingrich/Bisek affair begins.

1994: Republicans gain a majority in Congress.

1995: Gingrich's first year as speaker; Clinton/Lewinsky affair begins.

1998: Clinton's perjury and obstruction of justice leads to impeachment in December.

1999: Gingrich, no longer in Congress, announces he is suing for divorce, and his affair becomes public.

2000: Gingrich marries Bisek.

2011: Gingrich runs for president.

A Human Tragedy

The nation should be grateful to Gingrich for his role in promoting historic welfare reform in 1995 and 1996. He has my personal gratitude for publicizing a book I wrote on poverty-fighting. Gingrich has recently been ridiculed for saying that as speaker he was so passionate about changing the country that he "worked far too hard" and let other passions get the best of him. But one night in 1995, close to midnight, we were talking in a Washington restaurant. He seemed exhausted and I asked how to pray for him. He said, "You know, the physical things." It seemed he was referring to his 18-hour days. Maybe he was referring to something else.

The press meme in recent weeks has been that Gingrich is not as smart as many thought. Here's a disagreement: On coming up with brilliant ideas he leads the GOP presidential peloton. But the physical things, and in particular the heart things, cannot be separated from the brain. In 1999 I wrote a history book that profiled 13 American leaders and concluded that unfaithfulness in marriage was often a leading indicator of unfaithfulness to the country. I couldn't overlook the questions about Gingrich. That many of Gingrich's views are mine as well does not allow me to ignore his record.

This doesn't mean we should hiss Gingrich now. Even the apostle Paul wrote about his own ongoing struggle with sin. This means that we cannot choose sinless political leaders-they don't exist. All face enormous temptation and have great opportunity to sin. All will fail, maybe not committing adultery but disappointing us in some way. That's why we need to look for leaders who not only vote the right way and say the right things but see themselves as sinners relying on grace. Leaders of that kind are more likely to avoid self-righteousness, accept criticism, and learn from errors.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.