The first wave of summer heat has descended upon Washington, and the denizens of this malarial-swamp-turned-national-capital are sweating. Some of this is due to the weather. Some is due to the fever, which having been induced in the body politic by a rare pathogen known as Donald J Trump, is just entering a new phase: delirium began to set in some time ago; convulsions seem imminent.
In the midst of the turmoil in Washington these days, the appointment of the next US Ambassador to the Holy See might seem insignificant. It has been rumoured for months that the president will name Callista Gingrich to the post, but the appointment has yet to be officially announced. Presumably the White House has more pressing matters to attend to.
Mrs Gingrich, a practising Catholic, is a musician and has a background in politics. She worked as a congressional staffer, married a politician, and has spent the last decade or so writing patriotically themed children’s books, producing documentaries (including a genuinely moving film about St John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979) and undertaking the kind of media-as-politics-as-business endeavours that keep so much of this city employed.
Still, and forgive me if this sounds harsh, Mrs Gingrich’s primary qualification for the position of Ambassador to the Holy See is that her husband is the political equivalent of a silverback gorilla.
Mrs Gingrich’s husband, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, has had a long and tumultuous career in politics. He has known both triumph and humiliation, sometimes in rapid succession. He engineered a stunning electoral victory in 1994 that saw the Republicans capture of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. By January of 1999, he had resigned his Speakership and his 20-year career in Congress was over.
He moved into the private sector, held various positions at think-tanks and floated an armada of policy initiatives. He was rarely far from a television camera. In 2012, he ran for president. In 2016, he threw his support behind Donald Trump, a boost that many thought might be rewarded with a cabinet post. Instead, he’ll be accompanying his wife to Rome.
There has been some sniping about the unseemliness of the nomination, not so much for political reasons as for personal ones. In 2000, Mr Gingrich divorced his then-second wife to marry the current Mrs Gingrich, with whom he had been having an affair for some years. The story, happily, has a sacramental ending: Callista eventually brought Newt into the Catholic Church and, all the canonical boxes being checked, the Gingriches are properly wed.
The real question raised by the appointment is whether Mr Gingrich can keep himself from getting in the way of his wife’s mission once they’re in Rome. A man of his wide interests (he holds a doctorate in European History) and political talents may well prove a valuable asset. A man of such oversized personality, one who is never out of the spotlight for long, may as easily prove a distraction.
It’s often said that Eternal City is a prime place for keeping a finger on the pulse of the rest of the world. And the Vatican is always looking for well-connected and well-funded partners for various charitable and peace-making activities. A good ambassador can facilitate all these activities, representing American interests while finding opportunities for cooperation and collaboration with the Holy See.
The challenges of representing this particular administration to the Holy See during this particular pontificate will require a certain degree of subtlety. Mrs Gingrich should be up to the task. Whether the presence in Rome of her dynamic and indefatigable husband will make that task even more complicated remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the first big challenge for the new ambassador may well be underway before she’s even nominated: President Trump will meet Pope Francis for the first time in Rome next week.
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