What's the difference between Newt Gingrich and God? God doesn't think he's Newt Gingrich.
In a Republican presidential contest in which most of the major contenders, including Gingrich, claimed God "called" them to run, Newt alone worships at his own altar. Even after burning through three religions and three wives, Gingrich's self-proclaimed mission on earth remains to be "definer of civilization" and "leader of the civilizing forces."
Newt's belief in his destiny as a "world historical figure" dates well before he assumed the mantle of GOP frontrunner, became Speaker of the House or even led the 1994 Republican revolution. As he explained to the Washington Post in 1985:
"I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I'm doing it...Oh, this is just the beginning of a 20-or-30-year movement. I'll get credit for it."
As it turns out, the Newt the historian's grandiose self-vision was strongly influenced by science fiction. Gingrich's personal mission statement, uncovered in 1997 during the House investigation into his ethical woes, reads like the cover of Isaac Asimov's The Foundation about "a future century the Galactic Empire dies and one man creates a new force for civilized life":
"Gingrich--primary mission: advocate of civilization, definer of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who fan civilization, organizer of the pro-civilization activists, leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces."
And the Great Civilizer doesn't merely believe that "I am much like [Ronald] Reagan and Margaret Thatcher." As Gingrich explained in 1994, "People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz."
As Gail Sheehy revealed in her jaw-dropping 1995 Vanity Fair profile of then-Speaker Gingrich, Newt's belief in his epic role has deep roots:
"I'm a mythical person," says Newt, no stranger to revolutions. "I had a period of thinking that I would have been called 'Newt the McPherson,' as in Robert the Bruce." He is referring to his childhood, when he strongly identified with his biological father, Newton McPherson.
"Robert the Bruce," Newt continues, "is the guy who would not, could not, avoid fighting...He carried the burden of being Scotland." Like the Bruce, Newt feels he must carry the burden of being his nation.
"What makes me unusually intense is that I personalize the pain of war, the pain of children being killed, the pain of a 16-year-old who has been permanently cheated by his school and cannot read."
If Gingrich's self-description as a fighter who personalizes the pain of war seems odd, it should. After all, Newt never served in the military, getting deferments while his first wife funded his education. "Without corrective lenses, he couldn't see across the room," Colonel Bob Gingrich sneered about his stepson Newt, "Flattest feet I've ever seen. He's physically incapable of doing military service."
Newt Gingrich may not actually be a fighter, but he apparently fancies himself a lover. As Sheehy made clear, Gingrich's endless appetite for women other than his wives goes back to his earlier runs for office:
Along with his amorphous political persona, Newt showed a propensity for the kind of behavior boys boast about in the locker room. Throughout his first campaign he was having an affair with a young volunteer. Dot Crews, who occasionally drove the candidate, says that almost everybody involved in the campaign knew. Kip Carter claims, "We'd have won in 1974 if we could have kept him out of the office, screwing her on the desk."
As Anne Manning, with whom Gingrich had a dalliance in the 1970's explained, Newt the "definer of civilization" put plausible deniability at the top of his civilizational values:
In the spring of 1977, she was in Washington to attend a census-bureaus workshop when Gingrich took her to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. He met her back at her modest hotel room. "We had oral sex," she says. "He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, "I never slept with her." Indeed, before Gingrich left that evening, she says, he threatened her: "If you ever tell anybody about this, I'll say you're lying."
After dispensing with wife number one in 1980, Newt the world historical figure explained to wife number two why he had to leave her. As Marianne Gingrich (nee Ginther) told Esquire:
He'd just returned from Erie, Pennsylvania, where he'd given a speech full of high sentiments about compassion and family values.
The next night, they sat talking out on their back patio in Georgia. She said, "How do you give that speech and do what you're doing?"
"It doesn't matter what I do," he answered. "People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live."
Gingrich, of course, had been involved with Callista Bisek, a Congressional staffer and the future Mrs. Gingrich #3, for years. Even during his role as Clinton impeachment inquisitor, Bisek was, as Vanity Fair described her, his "frequent breakfast companion."
But in God Gingrich's moral universe, it's all good. As he put it in 1994:
"I think I am a transformational figure. I think I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change, the liberal machine, have a natural reaction."
Gingrich, who swapped his Baptist faith for Catholicism just in time to attack President Obama's 2009 address at Notre Dame University, later explained that his rapid fire infidelities were the actually product of his own patriotism:
"There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate. And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn't trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them."
"I found," Gingrich told CBN in March, "that I felt compelled to seek God's forgiveness."
And then got it, from himself.
(An earlier version of this piece appeared at Perrspectives.)