Newt Gingrich: 'AA Saved My Life'

By Walter Armstrong 12/12/11

The much-maligned Republican front-runner says the Big Book made him see the light. But his critics are not convinced.

When presidential candidates—especially the current crop of Republican hopefuls—need to cite a text on spirituality, they usually thumb through carefully selected Bible passages or the Ten Commandments. But Newt Gingrich has always liked defying convention. A startling video of the former House Speaker, who's enjoying a widening double-digit lead over Mitt Romney just three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, shows the Roman Catholic convert speaking not of God or Jesus, but of a “greater authority,” as described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although careful to avoid official AA language like a “higher power,” Gingrich offers plenty of clues that in the two decades since he left the House of Representatives, he’s acquired a more than passing familiarity of Bill W.’s spiritual treatise.

In late November, at a televised GOP candidate forum in Iowa hosted by a Christian evangelical group—a “Thanksgiving Family Forum”—Gingrich stole the show. Asked to elaborate on his religious beliefs, he told an anecdote about “a doctor friend in Atlanta” who gave him “the two books that make up Alcoholics Anonymous”—the Big Book and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions—and spoke movingly about how AA's principles had saved him from a professional and personal crisis two decades before. 

 “I wasn’t drinking, but I had precisely the symptoms of somebody who was collapsing from under its weight,” he said, skirting discussion of his divorces and infidelities. 'My life was full of accomplishments and achievements,” but “there was part of me that was truly hollow. I had to recognize how limited I was and how much I had to depend on the spiritual.”

And then he discovered AA: “Had I not had that intervention, I might have collapsed totally. That was the beginning of turning my life around,” Gingrich said.

Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman, who claim a direct line to Jesus Christ Himself, could only stare at the prop pumpkin at the center of the cozy wooden table, their frozen smiles melting into consternation and confusion, as if wondering for the first time, Is the drunks-in-recovery vote big enough to court?

“I wasn’t drinking, but I had the symptoms of somebody who was collapsing from under [alcoholism's] weight," Gringrich said last month. “That [Big Book] intervention…was the beginning of turning my life around."

This was not the first time Gingrich has associated himself with AA. In 1994, for example, while speaking vaguely of a "crisis" during his first marriage, he said, "I look back on it a little bit like somebody who's in Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a very, very bad period of my life. I ultimately wound up at a point where probably suicide or going insane or divorce were the last three options." In the event, he opted for divorce, while his wife was hospitalized with cancer, and then made amends by refusing to pay her child support. A decade later he left his second wife, Marianne, for his current spouse Calista, shortly after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. In a 2010 interview with Esquire, Marianne recalled confronting Gingrich about his extramarital affair hours after he returned from a speech promoting family values. He asked her to simply tolerate the affair. She refused and asked him how he could give high-minded speeches while simultaneously running around on his wife. According to Marianne, he replied, "It doesn't matter what I do. People have to hear what I have to say."

In the same profile, Esquire reporter John Richardson paints a helter-skelter picture of the Speaker's last days in power that will be all too familiar to many addicts. In 1997, after being fined $300,000 by the House Ethics Committee, "Gingrich started to deteriorate," Richardson writes. "He started yelling at people, which he'd never done before, and he'd get weirdly 'overfocused' on getting things done—manic, as if he was running out of time. He started taking meetings while eating, slurping his food, as if he didn't care how strange it looked. The staff responded with gallows humor: 'He's a sociopath, but he's our sociopath.'"

Not surprisingly, given all his personal and political baggage, Newt Gingrich’s rise from also-ran to front-runner has sparked an unprecedented effort by the Republican establishment to bring him down. Many former colleagues who served with him when he was in power are rushing forward with a rash of negative character references, questioning his suitability for the nation's highest job. The beltway rap on Newt Gingrich is simple: He gets drunk on power—and, like an alcoholic, cannot be trusted once he gets behind the wheel.

His tenure as speaker in the 1990s was notably brutish and short. Thanks to his canny packaging and promotion of the “Contract With America," the GOP swept the midterm congressional elections in a “Republican Revolution” that ended four decades of Democratic rule. But as leader of the House, Gingrich became his own worst enemy. His relentless combativeness coupled with a grandiose tendency to nurse personal grudges into political positions led him to pick very big fights with President Clinton—and lose very badly.

First he drove the newly elected GOP majority straight into disfavor by opposing Clinton’s budget and triggering the nation’s longest-ever government shutdown. In a matter of months he went from being Time’s Man of the Year to a paunchy “Cry Baby” famously caricatured in diapers on the front page of the New York Daily News. His image took further lumps during the impeachment trial of President Clinton—a nightmare consuming the attention of the nation for two long years.

In both cases, Gingrich misread—to a remarkable degree—the actual attitudes of the American electorate, which angrily voted out House Republicans in the 1998 midterms. Faced with a revolt in his own party, Newt immediately resigned as Speaker and abandoned his House seat, blaming, in classic dry-drunk fashion, other people. “I'm willing to lead but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals,” he told the cameras.

This immortal exit line—at once self-pitying and paranoid—was assumed to ring the final curtain of Gingrich's political career. He had become, in four short years, a pariah. The American people may have a short memory, but Newt's former Republican frenemies clearly do not.

As conservative pundit Peggy Noonan wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, “What is striking is the extraordinary divide in opinion between those who know Gingrich and those who don't. Those who do are mostly not for him, and they were burning up the phone lines this week in Washington.” Over the past week party stalwarts from Senator Alan Simpson to former congressman turned MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to pundit George Will have derided him as an intemperate politician who is hampered by severe character flaws. "Listen to anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he's inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled," said John Sununu, Bush One's chief of staff: Noonan called him "a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, "Watch this!" Even his daughter acknowledged yesterday that her dad had a "Grinch who stole Christmas" image problem. 

The consensus description of Newt Gingrich as a fundamentally unstable and erratic man raises a number of questions. What drew him to AA in the first place? Has he suffered from problems with alcohol or other addictions like prescription pills or sex? Or is he a “dry drunk”—angry, resentful, untreated, and lashing out at other people?

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.