As I’ve interviewed several self-proclaimed Gingrich voters over the past few months, many of them cite Jackie Cushman’s “Setting the Record Straight” editorial piece. Jackie Gingrich Cushman is Newt Gingrich’s daughter, from his first marriage.
“His own daughter refutes the negativity in the media with her account of her parent’s divorce,” Jeremy Freeman, an Iowa State University student, told me in late November.
Competing candidates and their campaigns have been tossing a good bit of negativity at Gingrich since he’s risen to the top of the polls, some of it about spacey ideas (colonizing the moon) Gingrich has proposed, or his past support of a health insurance mandate. But the former speaker’s marital history is part of the campaign conversation, even among his own supporters. The Gingrich campaign called me yesterday and asked if I would like half an hour with Jackie Cushman to talk about what Cushman herself calls the “urban myth” about her parent’s divorce in 1980.
The rap on the twice-divorce Gingrich was that he served his first wife with divorce papers while she was on her death bed, dealing with cancer. Cushman,was 13 when her parents told her and her sister they were divorcing. She wrote in “Setting the Record Straight” it was her mother who requested the divorce and that her mother did not have cancer — a tumor was found to be benign.
Our conversation this afternoon, in the Starbucks at the hotel where Cushman and her family are staying, started with this question: “Why did you write that piece?”
Cushman responded (here’s the AUDIO of her answer): “Obviously, we’ve been quiet for a very long time and that’s really out of respect for my mother. She’s obviously still very important in our lives. She helps watch the children which is fabulous. I mean, she’s the best babysitter ever and she’s been really supportive of my sister and I and has said, ‘Look, y’all, you go out and help your dad and I’m glad to be here and help. I’ll watch the children. I’ll do whatever you need.’ But she is not a public person and she’s not wanted to be a public person and has very clear about not talking to reporters and has just kind of kept quiet because it really, from our perspective, it was about our family and it really shouldn’t be public, from a public perspective.
“But I’ll tell you one of the things that changed my mind, that made me really think about it and, in the end, write this straightening out the record, how to set the record straight. I flew to Alaska in February to give a speech to a Republican group there and one of the ladies that picked me up, a lovely lady, I said, you know, ‘Great to be here. Let me just call and check on my mom because she has the kids. I’m going to see how they’re doing.’ And so I called and, of course, they’re fine. They’re with my mom.
“But when I got off the phone, she goes, ‘That was your mother?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah.’
“She goes, ‘She’s still alive?’
“I said, ‘Absolutely she’s still alive because she’s watching my children,’ but that’s when I realized here I was in Alaska, I mean, far away, right? Still in the United States, but very far away and clearly this urban myth that was very, is very untrue had spread so far that people not only believed it, but actually believed that my mother — I guess, if she was on her death bed, she would have been dead, so I understand how they might make that connection — but it wasn’t true, isn’t true and I really felt that, you know, we needed to set the record straight.”
My follow-up question was about how voters, not just candidates, are bringing up the subject of her father’s marital history. “How do you feel your father has been answering that question in the public?” I asked.
“I think he’s been very honest. He’s been very open,” Cushman said. “He very publicly said, ‘Look, I’ve made mistakes in the past. I’ve sinned. I’ve asked God for forgiveness. I’ve asked God for grace.’ And I don’t know what else more people want.
“You don’t fix what happened and you don’t change the past. It is what it is and I think when people see that both Kathy, my sister, and I are involved in the campaign. We’ve always been a close family…I think voters appreciate that and I think, too, he has changed very much from when he was speaker. He’s not the same man. He’s not the same man, I mean nor an I the same woman that I was 12 years ago.”
I asked: “How so?”
“When he was speaker, he was vilified by the press for four years,” Cushman said. “I mean, we’re near Christmas, so I can see that at one point he was shown as the Grinch that Stole Christmas, right? I don’t know if you remember that cover of, I think it was Newsweek, but I can promise you, as my father, he never actually stole my Christmas.
“…He wasn’t that person then, but even since then he’s changed a lot…He has grandchildren. I think that does…change your perspective and I think it makes you think about things a little differently. The other thing is he’s been a small businessman…and that’s been really good for him.
“…I have watched his faith deepen in the last decade. You know, he’s grown much stronger in his faith. I think you can see that when he talks about, ‘I have sinned and asked for God’s grace.’ I mean, he means that very seriously. He’s always believed in God and had that as part of his foundation, but I’ve seen it strengthen enormously in the last decade.”
Here’s the AUDIO of Cushman’s answers to those two questions.
According to Cushman, her dad “hadn’t bothered” to debunk the “urban myth” about the ‘death bed divorce’ because “he didn’t want (his first wife) to get in the middle of it.” It being the glare of media attention.
As for Cushman’s mother, Cushman put it this way: “She’s a very happy 75-year-old grandmother.”