We’ve all heard the story about how Newt Gingrich — heartless, horrible man — went to his cancer-stricken wife’s hospital bed and told her he wanted a divorce.
We heard it so often, we believed it. I admit, I believed it. Did you?
It’s become both the butt of jokes and the reason for criticism that Newt Gingrich informed his first wife that he wanted a divorce while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. Now, we have a first hand account from one of Gingrich’s daughters that this is untrue.
Still, as recently as three days ago — November 15 — the press was content to preserve the narrative:
Mr. Yepsen says voters aren’t likely to dwell on Gingrich’s past – though he is twice divorced, and left his first wife following her treatment for cancer. He left his second wife for a staff member who is now his third wife, Callista.
Gingrich’s daughter, recall, wrote:
Mom went to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for surgery to remove a tumor. While she was there, Dad took my sister and me to see her . . .here’s what happened:
My mother and father were already in the process of getting a divorce, which she requested. Dad took my sister and me to the hospital to see our mother. She had undergone surgery the day before to remove a tumor [which was benign].
Yet while the thrust of the story about his first divorce is not in dispute — Gingrich’s first wife, Jackie Battley, has said previously that the couple discussed their divorce while she was in the hospital in 1980 — other aspects of it appear to have been distorted through constant retelling.
Most significantly, Battley wasn’t dying at the time of the hospital visit; she is alive today. Nor was the divorce discussion in the hospital “a surprise” to Battley, as many accounts have contended. Battley, not Gingrich, had requested a divorce months earlier. . .Gingrich’s marriage to Battley had been troubled for many years before it dissolved 31 years ago, both parties have said.
The WaPo deserves some props for running this clarifying piece — albeit several months after Cushman’s public statement, and on a Saturday, the least-read day of the week. But while the salacious “legend” is now being somewhat beaten back, it’s worth asking the larger question: given the five-decade devolution of our cultural understanding of marriage should a long marriage or divorces really matter in our considerations of candidates?
Marriages end for many reasons, some of them completely unscandalous; it is the rare family that has not been touched by divorce, and it has always seemed to me to be no one’s business what has brought people to that point. Am I right in thinking that Ronald Reagan was our first “divorced president?” I don’t see how his divorce had anything to do with his character or his presidency.
For that matter, I can’t imagine any Republican suggesting that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s long marriage in any way validated their characters; I cannot imagine any Democrat pointing to the long marriage of George and Laura Bush as an indicator of leadership ability. Barack and Michelle Obama’s successful marriage speaks to nothing as regards competency.
Deciding on a presidential candidate on the basis of his or her marital status is more about validating one’s own values than making a careful assessment of a character’s strengths and weaknesses. None of us truly know why anyone else’s marriage ends, or for that matter, whether our own marriages may face future challenges, and how we’ll respond to them. For Christians, especially, the temptation to judge someone on the basis of their successful or unsuccessful marriages may be strong, but I wonder if it should be?
After all, we know how often we’ve needed to ask for the kiss of God’s mercy against our own wounding sins, and how grateful we have been to read Isaiah 38:17: you have saved me from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back, all of my sins.”
I don’t have any idea what Newt Gingrich’s marriages say about his character: perhaps something negative. I do not know what his reluctance to correct the record on a very damning story says about his character, either: perhaps something positive.
All I know is we’ve had plenty of long-married presidents whose performances in office have been less-than-stellar. My country is in way too much trouble for me to decide to give or withhold my vote based on that.