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For Gingrich, Wives Always at Center of Career

Friday, January 20, 2012

WASHINGTON — When Newt Gingrich was House speaker, lawmakers would routinely arrive at his elegant suite in the Capitol and find an unexpected adviser sitting on the couch: his wife, Marianne.

Like the wife who preceded her and the one who succeeded her, Marianne Gingrich was her husband’s political sounding board — “my best friend and closest adviser,” he once wrote. As a young congressman, he took her to private sessions with David A. Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, and to a dinner in Manhattan with Richard M. Nixon, the former president.

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He sought her counsel during meetings; it made aides and colleagues uneasy, several said, because she seemed to feel awkward about it, and sometimes had little to say. When Speaker Gingrich flew aboard Air Force One to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, Marianne was with him.

Now the second Mrs. Gingrich is making news with her allegation, denied by her former husband, that he asked for an “open marriage” while he and Callista Bisek, now his wife, were having an affair. Her remarks on ABC News have thrust Mr. Gingrich’s marital history — his pattern of replacing one wife with another, younger one — into the spotlight on the eve of the South Carolina primary, just as his bid for the Republican presidential nomination is appearing to surge.

But more than a jilted spouse, Marianne Gingrich serves as a window into the complicated psyche of a man who, those who know him say, seems to need a woman by his side. Friends and colleagues offer that for all his ego and bombast — “Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” one of his presidential rivals, Rick Santorum, declared at Thursday’s presidential debate — Mr. Gingrich has leaned on his wives to help project his vision of himself.

“I think Newt is very dependent on having the support of someone, and obviously he has chosen women,” Sue W. Kelly, a former Republican congresswoman from New York, said Friday in an interview. “He has a sense of a private personal destiny that is his alone, but inside, I don’t think he is certain of himself, and he’s got to have someone there,” said Ms. Kelly, who described herself as “very fond of” Mr. Gingrich.

At 68, Mr. Gingrich has been in one marriage or another for nearly 50 years, and each of his three wives has played a role in assisting and in her own way advancing his political career.

“For Newt, the political life is everything and each of the women in his life was integrally involved in it,” said Chip Kahn, who managed Mr. Gingrich’s two failed Congressional campaigns in the 1970s and now runs the Federation of American Hospitals in Washington. “They were advisers. They were sounding boards. They were people he took really seriously.”

His first wife, Jackie Battley, was his high school geometry teacher and seven years his senior; they married in 1962, while he was a 19-year-old college freshman, over the objections of Mr. Gingrich’s mother and stepfather. Nine months later, they had their first child and she supported the family while he completed his studies.

Mr. Gingrich was still married to Jackie when, in 1980, as a freshman congressman, he traveled to Ohio for a Republican fund-raiser and met a county planner there, a pretty 20-something brunette, Marianne Ginther. They were married the following year, and Mr. Gingrich soon brought his new wife into the political fold; in 1984, he listed her as co-author on one of his books.

But by the mid-1990s, as he made his political ascent, Mr. Gingrich became involved with a House Agriculture Committee staffer, Callista Bisek, nearly 23 years his junior. They carried on a secret affair for six years, and were married in 2000, after Mr. Gingrich left the speakership in 1999. Today, the third Mrs. Gingrich, with her striking platinum hair, diamond baubles — the subject of controversy because her husband spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at Tiffany’s — and bold suits is a constant presence on the campaign trail, often introducing Mr. Gingrich and looking on adoringly as he speaks. She has also been a business partner in his book and movie production company.

 Many who know Mr. Gingrich see parallels with his earlier wives. “The way he is taking Callista everyplace,” one friend of Mr. Gingrich’s said, “that’s how he took Marianne everyplace.”

Mr. Gingrich has said he has been “very open about mistakes I have made,” and about “needing to go to God for forgiveness.” He has declined to discuss in detail his previous marriages, leaving it to his two daughters, from his first marriage, to defend his conduct.

Some observers, though, see political calculation in the way he moved from one marriage to the next.

“Gingrich is a pragmatist, he’s an ambitious politician and he trades in people the same way he trades in ideas,” said Steven M. Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma who has written a book about Mr. Gingrich. “Just as he redefines himself politically, he redefines the people in his life that support him in any particular phase. And I think that applies to the people he is married to.”

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