'Esquire' Explores Gingrich's Personal, Political Life

It's been 12 years since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned in defeat and disgrace. Now there is speculation that he might run for the GOP presidential nomination. Steve Inskeep talks with John H. Richardson about his article "Newt Gingrich: The Indispensable Republican," which appears in the September issue of Esquire Magazine.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The initial court ruling on gay marriage prompted a comment from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The response to his comment suggested a challenge Gingrich may face if he runs for president.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

He called it outrageous and said, quote: Marriage is the union of one man and one woman. This statement on his website prompted readers to comment that Gingrich has been married to three women. He asked one of his wives for a divorce when she was in the hospital, with cancer.

A profile in Esquire magazine explores Newt Gingrich's professional and personal life. John H. Richardson wrote it. He's on the line.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN H. RICHARDSON (Writer): Thank you. Hi.

INSKEEP: Now, we should point out you did spend time speaking with Newt Gingrich, but you also spent time speaking with his second wife, Marianne. What did you learn when you sat down with her?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well, the first surprise was that Marianne's a really nice lady. She's very unguarded and very relaxed, and very unpretentious. Whatever preconceptions I had about Newt Gingrich - and they weren't that many - she sure didn't seem like the kind of wife I would've expected for him.

So that made me rethink, well, who is this guy, if he behaved the way he did and yet is married to someone like this - or was married - and what does that mean?

INSKEEP: He cheated on her.

Mr. RICHARDSON: He did. There's no doubt about that. To listen to her, he describes his behavior as worse than it actually was. He says he cheated on her for six years, and she says she doesn't believe that was true.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that's an interesting point there because, you know, obviously lots of marriages have lots of different kinds of problems. That's not necessarily news. But what comes out in the stories that you get from Marianne, and from other people who knew him, is of a man who seems to invent stories about himself.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well, the one striking moment was when, just casually, he had said this thing that struck me as odd - which is that he thought of himself as 4 years old and his current wife, Callista, who's 23 years younger than him, as 5 years old. And so she was the boss because she was a year older.

Sort of a whimsical thing, and I didn't really think much - except for that it was a little peculiar. But when I mentioned it to Marianne, her eyes went wide. And she was like, I said that. That's my line. And she sees him as someone who reinvents his past - which, you know, is not necessarily a terrible thing. I mean, we're a self-invented people, we Americans.

But as she put it, when you try to reinvent your past too much, you lose touch with who you actually are.

INSKEEP: You also re-create some key moments in Newt Gingrich's history. You talk about the 1990s, when he was the key figure in Republicans taking control of Congress for the first time in decades. He was speaker of the House. Then he got in some ethical troubles, and you describe what happened to him then.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well, following the ethical problems, according to Marianne, he really sort of went through a meltdown. A very strange thing that he did, though, was he sat down to write a book, and what she saw coming out of it was almost a psychological event of self-laceration. And the staff just got together and went through it page by page, and started throwing out pages. So...

INSKEEP: Meaning that rather than defend what he had done, he was writing a gigantic apology?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Right. It's either: I'm the great leader who's going to explain it all to you, or I'm a terrible person who deserves to be punished. It became, as we know, very difficult for the Republican leadership to deal with him, and then they essentially mounted a coup against him.

INSKEEP: So what did Newt Gingrich say when you went to see him and, I presume, mentioned at some point that his ex-wife described him as being so strange and erratic, and inventing his own history as he went along?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well, actually, I interviewed Mr. Gingrich prior to interviewing Marianne. And it was actually - the way that I came to interview Marianne was because I was - I didn't feel that I was getting in contact, from what he said, with any sort of real person. I mean, he had a very traumatic childhood, and he told me that his childhood was like Norman Rockwell. And it was just like unreal, and I was - well, this is not getting me to the truth.

So I started trying to contact people from his past life. And actually, Marianne spoke to me because I told her I didn't want to trash him. I wanted to get the guy down on the page. And she actually didn't want to trash him, particularly. She was also, frankly, concerned that he might run for president, and whether a person who she perceives as unstable and dishonest should be president.

INSKEEP: You know, one other thing comes through in this article. You follow him around to some public appearances.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: And he makes contact with some Tea Party movement folks, who have been protesting the current state of affairs in the government. You would think from Gingrich's past, as the leader of a Republican revolt of sorts, that he'd be very much in tune with them. But it doesn't sound like he entirely was.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Often, when the people he was talking to said extreme things, he wouldn't go along with what you might perceive as jingoism. He was a calming force. But then he would reverse it, and he'd start saying things even more jingoistic. So is he a fire-breathing conservative, or is he a middle-of-the-road statesman kind? He really is both. I think liberals don't give him enough credit. I mean, in some ways, you have to give credit for not being bland or predictable.

INSKEEP: John H. Richardson wrote a profile of Newt Gingrich in Esquire.

Thanks very much.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Thanks.

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