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Newt Gingrich: America’s next Catholic president?

Newt Gringrich, who was born Newton Leroy McPherson, converted to Catholicism in 2009 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Newt Gingrich has surged into the front of the polls in the Republican race to be the next president of the United States. He would be America’s second Catholic president, and its first chief executive with two ex-wives. His political resurrection has managed to outrage his former colleagues, the media, and conservative intellectuals. It is a contradiction of almost all received political wisdom.

Gingrich’s campaign seemed to have expired last summer when most of his staff resigned and the candidate took a holiday in Hawaii. He is the man who led the charge against Bill Clinton for perjury about an adultery, while he himself was a serial adulterer. He is an egghead autodidact who wants to lead a conservative coalition that now believes much expertise is self-interest with a PhD. He made most of his money after he left Congress in the kind of crony deal-making between private and public institutions that the Tea Party rose to challenge. And yet he is the current favourite among self-identified Tea Partiers.

Gingrich’s personal background is that of a Yankee transplant in Georgia, who won election to Congress in the late 1970s and established himself as an energetic backbencher, one who seemed to be at arm’s length from both the conservative and liberal wings of his party. He described himself as a “conservative-futurist” constantly pitching gigantic technological solutions to problems that didn’t seem entirely political. To wit, he once suggested the building of “a mirror system in space [that] could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for night-time lighting of the highways”. Also in 1984 he dared to suggest that America build “a large array of mirrors [that] could affect the earth’s climate” and extend the growing season of farmers. He is constantly pitching gimmicky “solutions” to almost any problem in society or government, some of them found in science fiction novels, others taken from business management gurus.

Gingrich has also had a colourful personal life, having married his high school maths teacher, Jackie Battley, in 1962. She was 26 and he was 19. Not long after his election he began an affair with Marianne Ginther. A legend grew up around the divorce that Gingrich had given his wife the divorce papers while she writhed on her death bed from cancer. But Battley is still alive. And so is Ginther, whom Gingrich cheated on with his young Congressional aid Callista Bisek in the 1990s. Gingrich married the Catholic Bisek in 2000.

He rose to become Speaker of the House in 1994 when he helped to lead the GOP to its first congressional majority in two generations. It was hailed as a “Republican Revolution” and it resulted in historic welfare reform, and years of budget surpluses. But it ended in utter acrimony, and Gingrich became one of the least popular figures in Washington. Somehow this part of his career has been forgotten.

Over the last decade, Gingrich had two career tracks. On the one side he made money selling his influence among conservative Republicans to the drug industry and to the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. He lobbied for the government expanding its subsidies to pharmaceutical companies and to mortgage makers. Conservatives have loathed the budget-busting results. On the other side, Gingrich morphed into a social conservative. Whereas in the 1990s Gingrich was the first member of Congress to call for Christmas trees to be re-named “holiday trees”, he now routinely bashes “political correctness” and secularism. He made a 2006 documentary and book with his third wife Calista called Rediscovering God in America, which he hawked at conservative gatherings. In this documentary he appeared wearing a crisp suit rather than sackcloth and ashes.

That, of course, is the other outrageous part of Gingrich’s career: his seemingly easy road to redemption. It required just a political pivot. No one has been asking Newt Gingrich to do contrition the way John Profumo did, by releasing all claims to power and status and spending decades doing menial charity work – though no one would object if Gingrich tried. But at times Gingrich’s ambition to appear strong in the face of challenge has led him to give preposterous explanations for his erratic personal behaviour. Earlier this year he told a reporter from the Christian Broadcasting Network: “There’s no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” This mea culpa seems more like Pontius Pilate sitting on Oprah’s couch than the conversion of a modern-day St Paul.

There is a persistent joke among Right-leaning American intellectuals that the conservative movement is a front group for making Catholic converts. William F Buckley Jr, who put it together, was a devoted Catholic, and many of the movement’s major and minor intellectuals have converted. In the past decade that trend extended to more conservative public figures as Senator Sam Brownback, Florida governor Jeb Bush, and journalist Robert Novak were received into the Church. Gingrich converted in 2009, admitting his attraction to the Church’s history, which he discovered touring Rome, and his admiration for Pope Benedict XVI.

But Gingrich’s religious professions, so unlike his political announcements, have been humble. “Over the course of several years, I gradually became Catholic and then decided one day to accept the faith I had already come to embrace,” he told the media in 2009. As a political figure he has compared himself to Charles de Gaulle, Abraham Lincoln and the Duke of Wellington, but he has, thankfully, never compared himself to the martyrs and saints.

And that is part of what seems to be working for Gingrich politically. When challenged about his affairs in public debates he encourages audiences to investigate his record and acknowledges that candidates should be judged on their whole public record and their personal integrity. His face seems to hint that his unpopularity in the 1990s and at times during the last decade caused him to suffer, a redemption through “high negatives” in public surveys.

The goodwill his candidacy has suddenly generated may not be enough to take him to the nomination. He lacks money, organisation, and he is still one of the most undisciplined political figures in modern America. But there is a subset of GOP voters who desire nothing more than to see him debate with Barack Obama. And his biography hits notes of personal redemption and political second acts that can drive a media narrative for months.

Gingrich has benefited because of reticence about his closest rival Mitt Romney’s insincerity and his Mormonism. He is the latest and most plausible of the “Not Mitt Romneys” in this election cycle. But his candidacy could easily implode if he proposes some other scheme involving mirrors or if compares himself to Cicero.

Even if a Newt candidacy is risky and inadvisable, it wouldn’t be the the first time America’s conservatives have had an unlikely champion. Over 30 years ago, media-hating conservatives rallied to Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood divorcé and union leader who had liberalised California’s abortion laws.

Of course, America’s social conservative voters want to nominate better candidates than they have in the past, but their coalition to defeat what Pope Benedict calls the “dictatorship of relativism” is itself a mutable and ever diversifying group. It tolerates all sorts of contradictions in the pursuit of its immediate political goals. And now with the spectre of a second term for Barack Obama terrifying social conservatives, it should be no surprise that it would tolerate the living outrage that is Newt Gingrich.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is politics editor at Business Insider (