Editor’s Note: Alan Duke grew up in Carrollton, Georgia, and began his career covering politics there. He began covering Newt Gingrich during Gingrich’s first campaigns for public office.
Newt Gingrich's campaign says he divorced his first wife at her request
Court files in Georgia show she asked the judge not to grant the divorce
"Over 30 years later, the family has long put these matters behind them," Gingrich's spokesman says
Questions about Newt Gingrich's first divorce have haunted him for decades
Newt Gingrich claims that it was his first wife, not Gingrich himself, who wanted their divorce in 1980, but court documents obtained by CNN appear to show otherwise.
The Republican presidential candidate, now in his third marriage, has been peppered with attacks and questions about his divorce from Jackie Gingrich for the past three decades.
Questions about his past – and what that past tells voters about his personal behavior – have re-emerged as he has returned to the political scene 13 years after he resigned as speaker of the House.
A new defense that has arisen as Gingrich entered the presidential race this year is the insistence that she, not he, wanted the divorce.
On the “Answering the attacks” page of his campaign website, Newt.org, which “(Sets) the Record Straight: Newt’s Positions on the Issues and His Record,” the campaign discusses Gingrich’s first divorce.
“It was (Jackie Gingrich) that requested the divorce, not Newt,” the campaign website said, referring readers to an online column written by Gingrich’s youngest daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, last May.
Cushman, 13 when her parents separated in 1980, was rebutting persistent rumors that her father served divorce papers on her mother the day after cancer surgery. In the column, Cushman writes that papers were never served in the hospital, and that her mother did not actually have cancer.
“My mother and father were already in the process of getting a divorce, which she requested,” Cushman wrote.
After initially being told that the divorce documents were sealed, CNN on Thursday obtained the folder containing the filings in the divorce, which had been stashed away for years in a Carroll County, Georgia, court clerk’s drawer. Retired clerk Kenneth Skinner told CNN his deputy took Gingrich’s file out of the public records room around 1994, “when he (Gingrich) became the center of attention,” because Skinner feared tampering and theft.
“During these years, you had to make sure those papers were there,” Skinner said. “People could go in those files and get things out. We didn’t have enough security to control it.”
Current Carroll County Clerk of Court Alan Lee said he called the retired deputy clerk, who told him where to find the papers, after CNN began looking for them last week.
The documents, and interviews with people close to the couple at the time, contradict the Gingrich claim about who wanted the divorce.
Newt Gingrich filed a divorce complaint on July 14, 1980, in Carroll County, saying that “the marriage of the parties is irretriebably (sic) broken.”
Jackie Battley Gingrich, the congressman’s wife and the mother of Jackie Gingrich Cushman, responded by asking the judge to reject her husband’s filing.
“Defendant shows that she has adequate and ample grounds for divorce, but that she does not desire one at this time,” her petition said.
“Although defendant does not admit that this marriage is irretrievably broken, defendant has been hopeful that an arrangement for temporary support of defendant and the two minor daughters of the parties could be mutually agreed upon without the intervention of this court,” her petition said. “All efforts to date have been unsuccessful.”
When CNN presented the information found in the divorce file to the Gingrich campaign, its spokesman stood by the contention that it was Gingrich’s ex-wife who asked for the divorce in 1980.
“Carroll County Georgia court documents accurately show Newt Gingrich filed for a divorce from his wife Jackie Battley, but it was Jackie Battley who requested the divorce,” spokesman R.C. Hammond said in an e-mail to CNN Saturday. “Gingrich, her husband, obtained legal counsel and filed the divorce papers initiating the legal proceedings.”
“It was the same legal proceedings that determined and set the amounts of payments Gingrich would provide to support his two daughters,” Hammond said.
Atlanta divorce lawyer Jim Peterson, who was not involved in the Gingrich proceedings, said the wife’s divorce filings make it “pretty plain” that she did not want the divorce.
“She obviously didn’t want the divorce, on the face of the pleadings,” Peterson said.
One reason a defendant in a divorce would deny it was irretrievably broken would be “to make you stay in the marriage and put the screws to you to make it as difficult as they possibly can,” Peterson added.
Jackie Gingrich, who has rarely spoken to the media about the divorce, declined CNN’s request for an interview. A friend said that Jackie Gingrich did not want to comment out of concern for her daughters and grandchildren.
In a brief interview in 1985, she told the Washington Post: “He can say that we had been talking about it for 10 years, but the truth is that it came as a complete surprise.”
Leonard H. “Kip” Carter, a former close Gingrich friend, backed the contention that it was Newt Gingrich who wanted the divorce.
“He (Gingrich) said, ‘You know and I know that she’s not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a president,’ ” Carter, who now lives in South Carolina, told CNN recently, relating the conversation he had with Gingrich the day Gingrich revealed he was filing for divorce. Carter served as treasurer of Gingrich’s first congressional campaigns.
Carter, who was a fellow history professor when Gingrich taught at West Georgia College in Carrollton, said he broke off his friendship with Newt Gingrich because of the congressman’s treatment of his wife during the divorce.
Asked in an e-mail whether that conversation in 1980 occurred the way that Carter recounted, Gingrich spokesman Hammond did not respond.
Gerald Johnson, a Georgia state legislator at the time who also was in Gingrich’s Sunday school class, said it was his memory that Jackie Gingrich did not want a divorce. Johnson laughed when told the presidential campaign is now saying she requested the divorce, calling that “surprising.”
When Gingrich filed for divorce, he was already seeing a 28-year-old congressional aide, whom he married six months after his divorce was final in 1981. The second wife, Marianne Ginther Gingrich, told Esquire magazine last year that Gingrich even introduced her to his parents in the summer of 1980, the same time he filed for divorce.
“They were thrilled because they hadn’t wanted Newt to marry (Jackie Battley),” she told Esquire.
Gingrich divorced Marianne Gingrich 19 years later, after an affair with a younger congressional aide whom he married soon after his divorce. The third wife, Callista Bisek Gingrich, is now a major figure in his presidential campaign.
Jackie Gingrich Cushman wrote in May that she and her older sister, Kathy Gingrich Lubbers, “will not answer additional questions or make additional comments regarding this meaningless incident.” Both sisters are actively involved in Gingrich’s campaign for the Republican nomination.
The court documents obtained by CNN also shed light on the issue of the first-term congressman’s record of offering support for Jackie Gingrich and the two girls during the separation and after the divorce.
The same court filing in which Jackie Gingrich told the judge she did not want the divorce also accused Gingrich of failing to provide enough money for her and her two then-teenaged daughters to live on during their separation. Kathy was 17 at the time.
“Despite repeated notice to plaintiff and requests by defendant, plaintiff has failed and refused to voluntarily provide reasonable support sufficient to include payment of usual and normal living expenses, including drugs, water, sewage, garbage, gas, electric and telephone service for defendant and the minor children,” she said in court documents. “As a result, many of such accounts are two or three months past due with notices of intent to cut off service and gas and electricity.”
When Jackie Gingrich and her daughters moved from their other home in Fairfax, Virginia, back to their house in Carrollton, Georgia, there were “no lights, no heat, no water, no food in the home,” former Gingrich friend and academic colleague Carter said.
Carter, who helped collect donations for the family, said Gingrich “wouldn’t give them a dime” in the first months of the separation.
“We had a food drive at First Baptist Church,” Carter said. “The deacons went down and stocked her pantry.”
Johnson, the former state legislator who was in Gingrich’s Sunday school class, said when the church’s minister asked him to donate money, he gave $100 to the fund.
A judge ordered Gingrich to appear in court a week after his wife filed her complaint. The result was a ruling that he bring the utility bills up to date and begin paying his wife $700 a month in temporary support until the case was settled.
Both sides reached an agreement three months later, avoiding the jury trial that Jackie Gingrich was demanding.
In 1994, Gingrich agreed to increase his alimony payments by $350 to $1,650 a month. In exchange, Jackie Gingrich waived her right to ask for future increases if her ex-husband’s income increased. Gingrich is still paying alimony.
“When asked, Gingrich has admitted he has not led a perfect life and has at times had to go to God for forgiveness,” Hammond said. “Over 30 years later, the family has long put these matters behind them.”
Johnson, who later challenged Gingrich in the 1984 congressional race, said the divorce and controversy over the support payments caused a lot of negative feelings against Gingrich in his home county.
“I think the thing that bothered people most was everybody in Carrollton knew how much Jackie sacrificed to get Newt elected,” Johnson said.
CNN asked Gingrich spokesman Hammond in an e-mail about the allegation made by Jackie Gingrich in her October 1980 court filing that Gingrich was not supporting his family during this period, but the statement the campaign released did not directly address that question.
Still, Johnson said there should be forgiveness and he would like to see Gingrich win the White House.
“Newt is the smartest candidate in the field this year and he would bring an intelligence to the White House that hasn’t been there in quite a while,” Johnson said.