Monday, November 28, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Newt Gingrich: A Life Of Transformations -- `He, Like The Rest Of US, Has Conflicting Traits'


MARIETTA, Ga. - The threat of a wedding without relatives and banishment from the family home might have discouraged most 18-year-olds from marrying their high-school math teacher.

Not Newt Gingrich.

Maybe his parents had a point when they said he was too young to get married. But he was sure he was right. Nothing was going to stop him.

Now the Republican Party's bad boy - the one who brought down Speaker Jim Wright on ethics charges, sabotaged President Bush's budget agreement with Congress and called President Clinton the enemy of normal people - is about to fulfill a 20-year ambition to become speaker of the House.

Most Americans know the gray-thatched Georgia congressman as a strident partisan, a man who says compromise is anathema, who rails against the "counterculture" and welfare state and wants a constitutional amendment on school prayer.

But Newt Gingrich is not as simple as that. And his speakership may not be, either.

This symbol of fiery conservatism has a gay sister and a pro-choice daughter. The crusader for radically downsized government has several relatives on the public payroll - including a sister who's a Medicaid administrator. The man who made his career by going for other people's jugulars weeps, friends say, at some of the personal attacks on him. He's a history professor but also a futurist who envisions a computerized country with states in space.

Republicans view Gingrich, 51, as a hero whose master planning and 10-point Contract with America catapulted them to House control after 40 years in the minority.

Along with publicity comes scrutiny, and Gingrich doesn't like that part. But as he said in launching his campaign against Wright in 1988: "He's the speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be president of the United States."

His first headline at age 10

Gingrich's life is dense and textured, a series of family and political dramas riddled with conflicts and reconciliations.

In Georgia he is remembered variously as the good father, the callous ex-husband, the energetic professor, the sensitive friend, the political turncoat, the small-town boy who made good. He is a person who moves on.

Gingrich's mother, Kit, was divorced early from his father. At age 3, he was adopted by her new husband, a taciturn military man with whom she had three daughters. The family moved often.

Newt was a boy who grabbed his opportunities. At 10, he told his mother he was going to the library, but he actually went to lobby the mayor of Harrisburg, Pa., for a zoo. The meeting yielded his first headline. A few years later, his uncle gave him a tour of a new TV station. Within minutes, young Newt got himself on the air.

Gingrich has said the turning point of his life was a visit to the French battlegrounds at Verdun. The family walked on fields shattered by ferocious World War I battles and looked through a building filled with the bones of the dead. His father, Bob, told him that "politics could have kept this from ever happening," recalled Kit Gingrich.

It was in Fort Benning, Ga., that the teenage Newt fell in love with Jackie, a geometry teacher seven years his senior. His parents were devastated. They expected their bright son to attend West Point or an Ivy League college. They did persuade him to leave for Emory University in Atlanta. It didn't work.

"The young lady's aunt had a very high job in the school district and got her a job in Atlanta," Kit Gingrich recalled tensely during a recent interview. His father told him, "If you marry her, you're not coming home."

His father - a former Democrat - is now a convert to his son's career. But for years there were strains, emotional and financial.

The history professor

Newt and Jackie had two daughters within three years. They also had little money. They moved to New Orleans, where Newt attended Tulane University and earned a Ph.D in history.

He got a deferment and didn't go to Vietnam. He demonstrated against censorship. He worked for moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller's 1968 presidential campaign. That same year, he used marijuana once "at a party late at night in New Orleans. It didn't have any effect on me . . . so I never went back and revisited it."

Gingrich was hired as an assistant professor at West Georgia College in Carrollton, a rural, blue-collar area 50 miles west of Atlanta. His specialty was European history, and he also coordinated the school's environmental-studies program. He attended First Baptist Church two to three times weekly. He was a deacon and taught Sunday school.

Gingrich made his first congressional race from this comfortable base as a progressive populist. He was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters and the Communications Workers of America.

"He convinced me he was going to build a reform Republican Party that was going to be attractive to blacks and women. He was very much a moderate back then," said Lee Howell, a liberal who worked for Gingrich's losing campaigns in 1974 and 1976 but more recently has helped his opponents.

The divorce

The literature in Gingrich's controversial third campaign, in 1978, featured pictures of his wife and children. He accused his opponent of planning to break up her family by moving alone to Washington.

When he won, college and church friends showered the Gingriches with money, clothes and furniture. They believed they had elected "a humble fellow, a brilliant political strategist, a wonderful father and husband," said the Rev. Brantley Harwell, Gingrich's former pastor.

Within a few months came the stunning news: Newt wanted a divorce. Perceptions hardened as Jackie struggled for money pending a settlement. He tried to discuss terms with her while she was recovering in the hospital from cancer surgery.

"It shocked the town because he was our Horatio Alger. We were so proud," said Floyd Hoskins, a retired West Georgia history professor who was Gingrich's close friend and office-mate. The general reaction, he said, was, "You mean I helped buy the furniture for their house and now he's throwing her out? A lot of people just said, `Boom, we don't like Newt anymore.' "

The couple had gone through counseling, and friends and relatives say Gingrich was in great pain. He told his mother he would have a nervous breakdown if he didn't get a divorce.

"I have to be myself. I have to be me," Hoskins said Gingrich told him in an agonizing late-night phone call. Hoskins believes the couple never transcended the original teacher-student relationship.

His ex-wife declines to talk to reporters.

Political opponents have used the divorce story to depict Gingrich as heartless and cruel. Jackie Sue Zyla, his younger daughter, was so angered by such attacks in 1992 that she made a campaign ad defending her father.

Gingrich's older daughter, Kathy Lubbers, owner of a Greensboro, N.C., specialty coffee company, took a different path that year. She held a pro-choice press conference with Republican moderates. Gingrich said his family and party were healthy enough to weather an abortion debate.

Gingrich's daughters and wife all are refusing interview requests. But Jackie Sue, an accountant, gave her father a heartfelt introduction at an Atlanta fund-raiser. "He, like the rest of us, has conflicting traits and opposing forces in his life," she said. "Most of all, I think of him as human."

A homosexual in the family

Nowhere are opposing forces more apparent than in Gingrich's attempts to balance his stands on gay rights.

His much-younger sister, Candace, 28, has not previously discussed her sexual orientation publicly, but it's no secret in her family. She said Newt's reaction, when her mother told him, was that "I have every right to live my life the way I want to. Basically, that was it - there wasn't any, `No, tell her not to say anything.' "

Gingrich, who did not respond to an interview request, recently compared homosexuality to alcoholism. Commenting this year on a Cobb County, Ga., resolution against "the gay lifestyle," he said that "supporting traditional families is important" but "you can do that in a way that is tolerant of other people."

A Gingrich aide was implicated several years ago in a scheme to persuade major newspapers to publish allegations that House Speaker Tom Foley was gay. Gingrich took flak for not firing her or requiring her to apologize.

Early in 1992, Gingrich said there was no reason to expel people from the military "for purely private behavior that's sexual." But a year later, after the military brass said ending the ban on gays would destroy troop morale, Gingrich switched. "I've decided to go with the guys who won the wars in Panama and the Gulf," he said.

This year he campaigned for Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., who acknowledges having a male companion.

"A burr under the saddle"

The congressman's competing instincts on gay issues offer glimpses of a moderate persona Gingrich left behind at the dawn of the Reagan era, when he married a new, more conservative wife and adopted a matching political philosophy.

By 1983, Gingrich had gathered several activist colleagues into a loose group called the Conservative Opportunity Society, known mainly for inflammatory after-hours floor speeches in an empty chamber.

A series attacking Democratic foreign policy provoked then-Speaker Tip O'Neill to thunderingly accuse Gingrich of "the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years of Congress!"

Gingrich reveled in the publicity.

The headlines came in spades several years later, when Gingrich accused Wright of multiple violations of House ethics rules. The House atmosphere became poisonous. Republicans elected Gingrich to GOP whip, the No. 2 leadership position. Wright was forced to resign.

The next year, Gingrich led a revolt against his own president, prompting the House to kill a bipartisan deficit-reduction agreement that would have raised taxes. The setback led to an agreement more appealing to Democrats.

Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press secretary, recalls Gingrich as "a burr under the saddle." Barbara Bush singled him out in her latest book as a troublemaker who contributed to her husband's downfall.

A district crafted for him

Likable or not, Gingrich was gaining clout. But he was having trouble getting re-elected at home. Bad feelings from the divorce lingered. Old allies resented his new politics. Then came the Eastern Airlines strike of 1990.

Gingrich, who represented the area around the Atlanta airport, angered his union constituents by refusing to support federal intervention to resolve the strike. Six thousand people lost their jobs; Gingrich kept his by 972 votes.

Reapportionment probably saved his career. By concentrating Democrats and blacks in certain districts, the Democratic legislature unwittingly crafted out of the remains the perfect district for Gingrich: suburban, affluent and overwhelmingly Republican. He didn't live there, but he moved there. After a close call in his 1992 primary, he appears comfortably settled.

Gingrich and his wife, Marianne, a business consultant, lived in a townhouse until a month ago, when they bought a larger home. The purchase reflected a confidence that wasn't always there.

The two told the Washington Post in 1989 that they didn't know if their marriage would last. Gingrich said his "habit of dominance" contributed to their problems and said he'd found "frightening pieces that related to . . . my own life" in the book "Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them."

Harwell, the Georgia pastor, calls his former parishioner "politically amoral." "He's gotten real mean," Harwell said.

Some Republicans are exhilarated by Gingrich's attention-getting remarks. They like him just the way he is. But the speaker-presumptive said in a post-election interview that he needed to be "30 percent less pugnacious and 50 percent less negative."

Back in the old district, his friends and former friends say they have great hopes Gingrich will accomplish this last transformation - from flame-thrower to statesman.

"The one thing that Newt wants is to go down in history as a very good speaker of the House of Representatives," said Richard Dangle, retired dean of arts and sciences at West Georgia College. "In order to be that, Newt's going to have to change again."

A NEWT GINGRICH READING LIST -------------------------------------- The future House speaker also sees himself as a speaker for the future. In the world according to Newt Gingrich, mental power beats muscle power, an information revolution is replacing industrialism, and - by fax, fiber optics and computers - life can now be lived at hyper-speed. Gingrich has given his followers a reading list designed to help them catch up with his thinking:

-- "Democracy in America," by Alexis de Tocqueville, to understand American history.

-- "The Third Wave" and "Future Shock," by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who suggest a theory of history involving three waves of living - agricultural, industrial and, most recently, informational. Some countries are still experiencing the first wave, while others, such as the United States, are well into the third.

-- "The Effective Executive," by prolific management guru Peter Drucker, who in 1966 predicted that manual work was giving way to "knowledge work."

-- The quality-control theories of the late W. Edwards Deming, whose concepts were ignored at home in America but revolutionized manufacturing in Japan. Associated Press

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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