The volatility of his campaign for president has eclipsed it, but a major decision looms over Newt Gingrich: how to introduce Callista Gingrich, both as a fully functioning partner in his bid for the White House, and as a worthy candidate for the unelected post of First Lady.
The Gingrich campaign took a tentative but important step last week, when his third wife, who has been a silent, blonde fixture by his side, went before cameras to offer up a four-minute introduction of her husband at the all-important Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. It was as much a hopeful prayer as an introduction.
“When we decided to run, we knew there would be tough stories from the media, as well as hurtful attacks from some of our opponents. What we didn’t know was how kind so many Americans would be to us,” Callista Gingrich said.
Journalists on the road with her describe the candidate’s wife as engaging and pleasant, but wary.
On Tuesday, Callista Gingrich -– “Cally” Gingrich on Twitter –- followed her CPAC debut with a brief address to a small group of Republican women in California. It was her “solo debut,” in the words of the campaign. She was introduced by Lynn Ann Reagan, president of the San Diego County Federation of Republican Women, according to my AJC colleague Daniel Malloy, who was there.
Reagan, no relation to the former president, told of how Wisconsin-born Callista Gingrich was headed for grad school in Boston until “fate intervened” and she became first a congressional intern in Washington, then a full-time staffer on the House Agriculture Committee, and finally, the head of Gingrich Productions.
Reagan had deftly navigated the minefield, never mentioning that, while Callista Gingrich’s future husband was the already married speaker of the U.S. House, the two began a seven-year affair.
Afterward, the candidate’s wife fielded a few gentle questions from the reporters present. Taking a higher-profile role in the campaign “is something that we decided to do together,” she said. “I’ll talk about American exceptionalism, as I’ve done in the past. I’d also like to speak to the arts. As you know I’m a believer in arts education, being a musician.”
Things won’t always go so smoothly. Earlier this month, Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich, 68 and 45, respectively, were ambushed by a guerrilla video journalist who asked whether the couple were in an “open marriage” -– a reference to the accusation made last month by second wife Marianne Gingrich.
Callista Gingrich managed to say, “No,” and give a nervous laugh.
An easier, more effective response is this: “Already asked, already answered.” If her roll-out is to be effective, at some point very soon Callista Gingrich will have to sit down with a journalist of record for an entirely uncomfortable conversation.
Which raises several more questions of strategy. A male interviewer or female -– which sex would be less judgmental? Secular or religious? Newt Gingrich has reached out before to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Do not expect Callista Gingrich to share air time with James Dobson, the founder and chairman emeritus of Focus on the Family. In 2007, Dobson and his radio audience were the first to hear Newt Gingrich’s confession of past marital sins. Dobson has endorsed Rick Santorum.
If all goes well, Republican voters will respond to Callista Gingrich as an imperfect woman who saw the errors of her way, and sparked in Newt Gingrich a revival of faith –- and a conversion to Catholicism. “Either you believe in a road-to-Damascus moment or you don’t,” one Gingrich strategist said.
Callista Gingrich’s participation as a stand-alone player in the campaign will be sorely needed as the 10-state, Super Tuesday vote on March 6 approaches. Surrogates will speak up for Gingrich in Georgia. The candidate himself will hit as many states as possible – but there’s talk that Ohio, whose delegate prize is second only to Georgia, might be a good target for Callista Gingrich and her Midwestern accent.
So far, the presence of Newt Gingrich’s two daughters, Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman, at Callista Gingrich’s side at major events has been a visual argument in favor of acceptance. Families are complicated machines, after all.
But a third Gingrich marriage remains a hard sell, even here, where the topic is old and worn. Last week, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll asked Republican voters whether they were bothered by Newt Gingrich’s marital issues. Nine percent said no, and 41 percent said yes. A full 50 percent of voters declared themselves neutral.
Possibly, in economically uncertain times, GOP voters have higher priorities. Or perhaps, as sometimes happens in the South, those surveyed were too polite to say what they really thought.
Friends: Please keep your language in check. I’d rather not shut down commenting, but I will if I must.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider