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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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Think Again: Where's the Real Newt?

Posted: 03/ 4/11 12:27 PM ET

In one of those stories without a lot of "there" there, Newt Gingrich toyed with announcing that he was "planning" to create an "exploratory" committee before he decides whether to run for president in 2012 -- at least he did before he found out it would cost him his Fox sinecure.

It's all a little murky. Nevertheless, in anticipation of this earth-shattering development, New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny wrote a story over the weekend in which he attempted to focus on some of the challenges Newt Gingrich will have to face as he is forced to "grapple with aspects of his life and career that could give pause to elements of the Republican primary electorate."

The article began with a typically insane Gingrich quote and with the reporter -- again, typically -- pretending that there is really nothing all that odd about it. To wit: Gingrich warned a crowd of 1,300 at an Ohio Catholic school recently that: "To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland's in 1979... 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."

The statement is nuts, in the first place. The United States has nothing to do with a country that was simultaneously communist, occupied by a brutal foreign power, ruled by a totalitarian clique, on the brink of revolution, almost entirely Catholic, lacking in racial minorities, rather poor, without much in the way of natural resources, technologically backward -- I could go on.

Second, it is factually wrong. There is no "cultural elite" seeking to drive "God" out of public life. There are only a few atheists here and there writing the assorted book. I would have heard about such a plot if it existed as a card-carrying member of the cultural elite and a proud Jewish agnostic. It's about as real as Bigfoot and Martian moon landings. But Gingrich said it and the Times reports it despite the fact that it, too, is a member of the cultural elite and a proud promoter of Mr. Gingrich.

Mr. Zeleny does note that Gingrich knows a presidential campaign "would bring new attention on the full scope of his personal and political background," and adds that "he grew testy when he received a question from a Democratic student activist about the details of his two divorces."

What are those "details"? Well, one, Zeleny notes, involved "an extramarital affair with Callista Bisek, then a House staff member, while leading impeachment proceedings against Mr. Clinton for lying about his own sexual transgressions."

But despite the almost superhuman level of hypocrisy necessary to pull that one off, it's still not the really interesting one. That one, described as a parenthetical, goes, according to the Times, like this: "(In 1981, he and his first wife, Jackie, divorced, and he married his second wife, Marianne, that year. In an episode often cited by his detractors, he visited Jackie in the hospital in 1980 while she was recovering from a cancer operation to discuss terms of their divorce. Mr. Gingrich disputes the account.)"

Well, that's one way of putting it. In fact, that's exactly how I would put it were I Newt Gingrich and did not want anybody to know any of the disturbing details. But if I really wanted people to understand what had happened as a window into Newt's character, I would have leaned more heavily on the well-sourced version of the divorce that appeared in Esquire.

There we learn, for instance, that the former Jackie Gingrich, Newt's first wife, was his high school geometry teacher, and Gingrich started dating her at 16. He divorced her because, as he explained to an associate, "She's not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of the president. And besides, she has cancer."

He left her without any resources -- at least until the court ordered him to provide some. The family required church alms to survive. It was a pretty neat trick for a guy who argued that his opponent for the seat he eventually won would have to separate her family to move to Washington and would have to hire a nanny to fulfill her maternal obligations.

Anyway, the meeting in question took place when Gingrich stopped by the hospital to offer his divorce terms while she was recovering from uterine cancer. He then fought her so tenaciously that the soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Gingrich required a court order just to pay her utility bills.

The Times, in skirting over these decidedly unpretty details, apparently had no room to mention Gingrich's second divorce. That's too bad, because the details are almost as good.

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