Newt Gingrich, who hoped to put his personal past behind him by saying he’d made mistakes, has revived the issue with questionable claims about the details of his first divorce.
The Republican presidential candidate insists that it was his then-wife, Jackie Battley Gingrich, who sought a divorce in 1980. After court records showed he filed the action, the Gingrich campaign said he’d done so at her request. Court documents, Gingrich’s own previous explanations and the recollections of two former Gingrich aides refute his current claim.
“It’s totally untrue that she wanted the divorce, and Newt knows that,” Dot Crews, who worked in the former Georgia congressman’s office from 1979 to 1984, said in a telephone interview yesterday. Crews, 80, recalled Gingrich confiding during a car ride in his home district that he’d decided to file for divorce.
“He talks about redemption, and then he lies like this?” Crews said.
Gingrich, 68, has largely sidestepped specific questions about his two divorces as he campaigns for president, focusing on his current marriage to Callista Gingrich. An online column in May by daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman, referenced on his campaign website, asserted her mother had asked for the divorce. The elder Jackie, 75, couldn’t be reached for comment.
‘30 Years Old’
Reporters yesterday asked Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, to square the description of the divorce as her idea with divorce papers indicating it was his.
“It’s 30 years old,” Gingrich said during a stop in Dubuque, Iowa. “You can read my younger daughter’s column and talk to her. She’s covered it, I think, more than adequately, and that’s all I’m going to say on that.”
He made the same point later in an interview on CNN.
R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s campaign spokesman, also referred to the daughter’s column as the definitive account of the divorce. “You can’t get much closer to the source than that,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday. “The family has put this behind them.”
Hammond questioned whether aides interviewed by Bloomberg News were real Gingrich employees; House records show they were.
After a CNN reporter showed the Gingrich campaign divorce documents, also obtained by Bloomberg News, that indicate Newt Gingrich filed for divorce, Hammond said Gingrich had done so at his first wife’s request.
He declined to comment to Bloomberg News about the aides’ accounts or details in the divorce papers.
On May 7, days before Gingrich announced he’d seek the Republican presidential nomination, Jackie Gingrich Cushman wrote in a creators.com column headlined “Setting the Record Straight” that her mother had “requested” the divorce.
Campaign finance records show that Gingrich has paid the Atlanta-based company Cushman Enterprises Inc. $34,321 since April 21 for fundraising, consulting and travel. Jackie Gingrich Cushman is listed as the company’s chief executive officer, chief financial officer and secretary, according to the Georgia Office of the Secretary of State’s online corporations database.
Court documents show Newt Gingrich filed for divorce from his first wife in July 1980. Jackie Gingrich “has adequate and ample grounds for divorce” and “does not desire one at this time,” according to her answer to the divorce filing.
In another filing, she stated that she “does not admit that this marriage is irretrievably broken.” The documents also show the court had to force Newt Gingrich to pay the required amount of support during and after the divorce proceedings.
Gingrich’s earlier statements show he wanted the divorce -- contradicting his more recent statements.
“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,” The Washington Post quoted Gingrich as saying in a January 3, 1985, article. “There were long periods in my marriage when I was in enormous pain.”
Gingrich married his second wife, Marianne Ginther Gingrich, about six months after his divorce was finalized in 1981. During that marriage, he has acknowledged having an affair with Callista Bisek, whom he married soon after his second divorce was finalized in 2000.
Divorce history “is a terrible thing to be talking about at this stage of the campaign” as the Republican candidates focus on the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Infidelity had receded as a particular issue, and to have it not just rear its head but come roaring back with new questions about his truthfulness exacerbates the problem.”
Former Aides’ Accounts
Two former Gingrich staff members described in recent interviews how their onetime boss had informed them about his decision to divorce his first wife.
He was first elected to Congress in 1978, after two unsuccessful campaigns.
Dolores Adamson, a staff assistant in the congressman’s Georgia office from 1980-1983 whose name was Shanks at the time, said she picked him up at an airport in Georgia after he flew in from Washington.
They were having lunch at a Steak and Ale restaurant when he told her he’d decided to get divorced and wanted her help informing other staff members and constituents.
Adamson said he told her it’s something he had to do.
“He said he was going to the hospital to talk to his wife about the terms,” Adamson said.
Jackie Gingrich was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1978 and in the summer of 1980 was undergoing surgery on what turned out to be a benign tumor, according to her daughter’s online columns.
Adamson said she later asked him why he wanted the divorce. “Jackie can’t run uphill,” she recalled him saying, which she took to mean that his wife was overweight and ill, not a plus for an aspiring national politician.
Today, retired and living in St. Augustine, Florida, Adamson is a Gingrich critic. “I get very angry at his lies,” she said. “He manipulates -- whatever he wants he can get.”
Crews, who worked for Gingrich for 10 years, said she remembers him pulling employees aside to tell them privately about his divorce plans.
Her exchange with him occurred in a car, she said. “He said, ‘I wanted to tell you before you heard it from somebody else,’” she said.
She remembers telling him he could lose his congressional seat over a divorce, to which he matter-of-factly replied he would return to teaching.
Crews, now living in Jonesboro, Georgia, said she was stunned to see recent media accounts in which the Gingrich campaign claimed it was his first wife who sought the divorce.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she said. “It’s just about the biggest mistake they could make to say these things because they are so easy to check up on.”
As for whether she’ll vote for her former boss, Crews said: “I would prefer that the Republicans nominate someone else.”