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Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich’s second wife accuses him of suggesting an “open marriage” that would have let him continue an affair with former congressional aide and current wife, Callista, a charge prompting an angry denial from the Republican presidential candidate in a debate last night.
“The destructive, vicious nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country,” Gingrich said when asked about the allegation in the opening question of the debate in North Charleston, South Carolina. The state holds its Republican primary tomorrow.
Marianne Gingrich, the former U.S. House Speaker’s second wife, described her former husband’s proposal for the marital arrangement in an interview with ABC News that aired in full after the debate. Gingrich asked her in the late 1990s if she would share him with Callista, Marianne Gingrich told ABC’s Brian Ross on “Nightline.”
“And I just stared at him and he said, ‘Callista doesn’t care what I do,’” she said in her first televised interview since their 1999 divorce. “He wanted an open marriage and I refused.”
With the Republican presidential field reduced to four, Gingrich is challenging front-runner Mitt Romney for the nomination along with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
The accusations by Marianne Gingrich, made public before the interview aired, dominated campaign headlines yesterday and led Gingrich to chastise CNN moderator John King for broaching the allegations at the debate.
“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said, drawing applause from the audience.
Earlier in the day in Beaufort, South Carolina, Gingrich said, “I’ve been very open about mistakes I have made. I’ve been very open about needing to go to God for forgiveness and to seek reconciliation.”
Later, on a South Carolina radio call-in show, he called the interview with his ex-wife “very sad” and said her statements are “just plain untrue.” He also said that his two daughters by his first wife and some close friends “are all willing to be witness to protest it.”
“People sometimes get very bitter,” he said on WVOC’s Keven Cohen show. “They sometimes hold grudges.”
Asking for Forgiveness
Marianne Gingrich said her former husband has never asked for her forgiveness and, according to ABC, following the debate she said she stands by her account in the face of Gingrich’s denials.
During the interview, she said Gingrich once told her that Callista “was going to help him become president.”
Gingrich’s affair took place while he was leading the U.S. House impeachment proceedings against then-President Bill Clinton, which were prompted by sworn testimony Clinton gave denying his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford, whose marriage to ex-Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, ended in divorce after he had an affair with an Argentinian girlfriend, said Gingrich won’t get her vote.
The accusations “question his character certainly on the personal side,” she said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “It comes down to the simple question of character.”
Marianne Gingrich described her “shock” at Gingrich’s behavior, including learning that he conducted his affair “in my bedroom in our apartment in Washington,” she said. “He always called me at night,” she said, “and always ended with ‘I love you.’ Well, she was there listening,” she said.
Marianne Ginther and the Republican presidential hopeful began dating while Gingrich was still married to his first wife, Jackie Battley Gingrich. Marianne and Gingrich were married about six months after his first divorce in 1981.
During their marriage, Gingrich credited his second wife with helping him lead a Republican Party comeback that culminated in the 1994 takeover of the House, ending 40 years of Democratic control of the chamber. “At the time I believed him to be ethical,” she said.
Gingrich has tried to put his personal past behind him by saying he has made mistakes. Gingrich divorced his first wife as she was being treated for cancer. Gingrich moved toward a divorce with Marianne Gingrich months after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she said in the interview.
“He also was advised by the doctor when I was sitting there that I was not to be under stress. He knew,” she said.
Part of Discussion
Gingrich’s two prior marriages were part of the discussion during the campaign preceding the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, in which he finished fourth. In December he had revived the issue with claims about the details of his first divorce that were disputed by a former aide and court documents.
The Republican presidential candidate insists that it was his first wife who sought a divorce in 1980. After court records showed he filed the action, the Gingrich campaign said he had done so at her request.
Gingrich, 68, has largely sidestepped specific questions about his second marriage, saying he has “no relationship” with Marianne Gingrich.
An online column in May by daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman, referenced on his campaign website, asserted her mother had asked for the divorce. The elder Jackie, 75, couldn’t be reached for comment.
In a Jan. 18 memo from Gingrich’s daughters to ABC News leadership, which was released by his campaign, Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman said, “The failure of a marriage is a terrible and emotional experience for everyone involved.”
--With assistance from Julie Bykowicz and Catherine Dodge in Washington. Editors: Jim Rubin, Don Frederick
To contact the reporter on this story: Heidi Przybyla in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com