CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Last summer, Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, hosted a band reunion for alumni. Callista Gingrich attended and took a place among 25 French horns. As the band practiced for its concert on a bright July weekend, her husband, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, sat patiently in the hallway outside.
“He was very low-key,” music professor Timothy Peter recalled. Never mind that Gingrich’s campaign for the Republican nomination had imploded a few weeks earlier, with the mass defection of his staff, who complained, publicly, that Gingrich was putting commitments to his wife ahead of his campaign duties - in particular a June cruise of the Greek islands.
Five months later, Gingrich is leading in many polls, and campaign press secretary R.C. Hammond credits Callista with the turnaround. Several times over the summer Newt considered dropping his candidacy, Hammond said.
“She was the glue that held the campaign together.”
To an extent almost unprecedented in presidential politics, the Gingrichs are running as a couple. Two decades after Bill Clinton was slammed for remarking that voters could “buy one, get one free” in reference to his wife, Hillary, Newt Gingrich’s public statements and campaign literature often open with “Callista and I.” She has been a principal in the network of businesses that made the couple rich over the past decade, and she is a constant presence on the stump, promoting those businesses at events that neatly dovetail with campaign appearances.
Callista Gingrich is a passionate musician who worked for many years as a clerk on Capitol Hill. She is so integral to every aspect of her husband’s life that it is hard to assess Newt’s current bid for the presidency without examining their relationship.
“The first team of consultants would have done a better job if they had had a better understanding of how the Gingrichs make decisions as a couple,” Hammond said.
Newt is clearly smitten with his third wife, wants her involved in everything he does and also accommodates her separate interests. “He cares about her and makes sure she’s happy,” said a former employee of Gingrich Group. This source acknowledged that Newt’s priorities sometimes annoyed staff at the cluster of consulting and policy enterprises that - in addition to his substantial speaking fees - earned him millions of dollars from Freddie Mac, healthcare companies, pharmaceutical firms and other corporate interests.
Financial disclosure documents put the Gingrichs’ net worth at between $6.7 million and $29.6 million.
In one instance, the former employee recalled, Gingrich kept an audience waiting 10 minutes because Callista asked him to help her unpack. And then there was the now-famous matter of the $500,000 - $1,000,000 interest-free charge account at Tiffany’s, which Hammond said was all for personal use “and has now been paid off and closed.”
Early advisors to the Gingrich campaign cautioned that putting Callista front and center would be a constant reminder to family-values voters of their six-year affair, which began in 1993 when he was a Congressman married to his second wife and she was a congressional aide 23 years his junior.
It was going on at the same time that Gingrich was vociferously leading the prosecution of President Bill Clinton for a sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, which would expose him to charges of hypocrisy as well.
Dr. Richard Land, an ethics expert at the Southern Baptist Convention, and one of the most influential evangelical voices, recently published an open letter to Newt saying, “The good news is...a high percentage of evangelical men are willing to cut you some slack over your turbulent marital history. The bad news is that evangelical women are far less willing to forgive.”
None of this has dissuaded the Gingrichs from campaigning together.
“They’re a tremendous team,” said Dave Bossie, director of the conservative political organization Citizens United, who co-produces documentaries with the Gingrichs. “They come up with virtually everything together. We have to appreciate that. I have not seen Newt happier than he is today.”
Among the changes in his life since marrying Callista, Gingrich has converted to Catholicism, taken up golf, and embraced his wife’s love of music. Even as the campaign accelerates, she has rarely missed her bi-weekly choir practices at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, according to music director Peter Latona.
“She’s almost religious about it,” he said. She also plays French horn in the Fairfax community orchestra.
Callista Bisek grew up in Whitehall, Wisconsin, a tiny town of about 1,600, where everybody knew everybody. Her Polish- American father, who worked in the meat-packing industry, would pray the Rosary every morning. She studied music at Luther College, where classmates remember her as poised and polished.
“She was always classy, always looked wonderful. She would even hold a beer bottle elegantly,” said Luther College’s Peter.
After college, Callista headed to Washington to work for a Congressman she knew from Wisconsin. She had been a radio host in high school and considered pursuing her interest in broadcasting at Boston’s Emerson College, according to Hammond.
Instead, she met Gingrich and began the long affair that carried through to Newt’s resignation from Congress in 1999 following a stormy tenure as speaker and a formal reprimand for ethics violations. In December of that year he divorced his second wife, Marianne, and married Callista eight months later.
Callista continued working as the chief clerk of the House Committee on Agriculture for the next seven years while Newt built up a network of for-profit and non-profit companies. She left in 2007 when she and her husband set up yet another enterprise, Gingrich Productions, where Callista, as president, could fulfill her dream of working in media as a photographer and documentary filmmaker.
“The production company is and always has been her baby,” said Hammond.
The Gingrichs’ documentaries cover topics of interest to conservative and Christian audiences. “Rediscovering God In America” was their first and most successful film, with between 300,000 and 400,000 copies sold, said Bossie. The DVD, priced at $19.99, follows Newt and Callista on a walking tour of Washington, DC, as they look for evidence of God’s role in American history.
“She has her hands in all elements of film-making, from working with the writer on every single word, the locations of shooting, all the way through to the box art,” said Bossie. “Part of the benefit of making these films, before these films she was not a public figure, and now she has become a public figure in her own right.”
According to the former staffer, after Callista joined Gingrich Productions in 2007 she sometimes attended meetings with the paying clients of Gingrich Group. Though she never made policy recommendations, Callista would not shy from offering opinions. “Newt listens very intently to what she has to say and respects her comments,” the former employee said. Gingrich pared down his corporate empire to run for president; the remaining enterprises have consolidated under Gingrich Productions, with Callista as president and CEO.
Staff of the various Gingrich enterprises, which generally operated out of the same offices, remember Callista as always looking impeccable, with no concessions to casual Friday. They quickly learned that Newt and Callista’s personal time was sacrosanct: if they had dinner reservations for 6:30, all other work was up against that deadline.
“A lot of people got irritated,” that they weren’t willing to sacrifice personal time, the former Gingrich Group employee said. In the campaign, “I think a lot of staff thought he wasn’t serious enough. In my opinion, it’s a balance. You have to be a good husband and a good president. I think he is taking that seriously.”
On September 26, Callista published her first children’s book, “Sweet Land of Liberty.” The idea arose when Newt and Callista were meeting with Regnery, the conservative publishing house that has put out five of Newt’s books, about his latest: “A Nation Like No Other.”
“We started bemoaning the fact that especially young kids don’t know some of the stories about our nation’s founding,” said Callista’s Regnery publisher, Marji Ross. So Callista invented Ellis the Elephant - who she says is a patriot, not a Republican, though he happens to be a pachyderm.
Again, Callista was hands-on in the production, Ross said, insisting, for example, that every picture of Ellis show a twinkle in his eye.
The $14.95 book sold several thousand copies in its first week in October, and 80,000 are now in print. A good number of those sales are at book signings scheduled to fit Gingrich’s campaign calendar, where Newt’s own book is on sale, too.
“With Newt doing so well in the polls and rising, its just perfect timing for the book as well,” said Ross.
At the Sottile Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina last week, Callista wore a trademark bold-colored suit jacket and perfectly coiffed hair. After her husband spoke at a town hall, she sat beside him personalizing copies of his and her books in a neat hand. She would then sign her own name, and pass the books over for him to dash off his. The next morning, at the Hilton Head Christian Academy, she signed her book for a group of elementary school students.
In addition to selling books, Gingrich also touts the couple’s documentaries at campaign stops, but R.C. Hammond insists that the campaign and Gingrich Productions have gone out of the way to establish “firewalls” between commerce and campaigning.
Hammond is adamant that the Gingrichs’ book events are scheduled separately from the campaign. However, some of the signings scheduled in South Carolina last week appeared only on www.newt.org, and not on the ellistheelephant.com website.
Nevertheless, Hammond maintains that travel and incidental costs are being scrupulously apportioned between the campaign and the profit-making activities in accordance with Federal Election Commission regulations.
The possible commingling of commercial activities with campaigning is a particularly sensitive subject because Gingrich’s 1997 reprimand for violating House ethics involved using tax-exempt organizations to advance political goals.
According to campaign disclosures, Newt collected $2.4 million from his various enterprises last year; Callista’s income from Gingrich Productions is not available. “Their net worth is probably what Romney’s beach house is worth,” said Hammond.
And that might be true if it falls on the low end of a range reported in campaign disclosure statements. The Romneys paid $12 million for the La Jolla, California, house they are now expanding, and reported a net worth of between $190 million and $250 million on campaign disclosure forms.
The Gingrichs live in a “lovely home” in McLean, Virginia that is “very meticulous,” said a Gingrich aide. But it’s no mansion. Callista wears expensive clothes and visits the hairdresser often, but “from a DC perspective she isn’t unusual,” said the former staffer.
They travel by private jet and charged more than $6 million in jet charter fees to their tax-exempt organization American Solutions over the last four years; American Solutions has now been disbanded.
What sort of first lady would Callista be? At a book signing in Staten Island last weekend, she told Reuters that she admired Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush and Jacqueline Kennedy.
“With Mrs. Reagan, she was always protective of her husband, looking out in his best interest always,” she said. Laura Bush was “a very loving mother and wife,” while Jacqueline Kennedy had “incredible style and grace, she also focused on the arts and music and that’s something I admire very much.”
She added: “I would be very involved in communicating the importance of music education as a vital part of a complete education.” If the pattern holds, she would also be involved in most aspects of a Gingrich presidency.
First, though, the couple must brace for a bruising primary battle in which Aegean cruises and Tiffany baubles will be ready fodder.
“Over the years he’s always been attacked for having been divorced twice, and it’s a really interesting change to see him attacked for supporting and loving his wife,” said Bossie.
“The world’s upside down.”
(This story corrects the sourcing of information in the 36th paragraph.)
Editing by Lee Aitken