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?

Although his own account of coming to Bill W. finds him hitting bottom when he was on top of the world (in 1994, with his elevation to House Speaker), it seems more true to life that his dark night found him, as it does most addicts, in a state of humiliation and desperation (in 1999, with his flight from Washington under a cloud).

After a period in the wilderness, Gingrich predictably staged a quiet comeback, metamorphosing in the typical manner of the congressional species into a highly paid lobbyist. But as a serious contender for the White House, a convincing makeover was a must if he hoped to compete with the squeaky-clean, no-drama Obama. So the strategy was out with old nasty Newt, in with new nice Newt. His AA conversion served as a smooth transition.

Last June, with his campaign floundering, Gingrich started to once again talk up his affection for AA. On Fox and Friends, he defended President Obama against host Gretchen Carlson’s charges of hypocrisy for invoking “God” and “prayer” in a speech despite the fact that the president does not attend church every Sunday. Gingrich said, “Look, in my new book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, I reprint the entire 12-step program from Alcoholics Anonymous. Six of the 12 steps involve a higher authority…” The relevance of his statement to the issue at hand was less then exact, apart from it being a plug for his book. But it was notable, nonetheless, because Gingrich, never hesitant to heap forgiveness of himself, struck this tone of forgiveness toward the president, and forgiveness is an ethic central to AA.

As Speaker of the House in 1995 Gingrich proposed legislation imposing a mandatory death penalty on drug smugglers and even advocated public mass executions as an effective form of deterrence and prevention.

Last Saturday, at the most recent GOP debate in Iowa, Gingrich dodged the slings and arrows of his fellow Republicans, saying: “I'm a 68-year-old grandfather, and I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I am a person they can trust. It's up to the American people to decide." If the American people decide to elect Gingrich to the nation's highest office, how will his AA affinities affect his policies towards treatment and interdiction?

Nobody really knows. While Gingrich's website elucidates his position on many far-flung subjects, large and small, there is almost no reference to his positions on drug treatment or the drug war, even though he has called substance abuse "perhaps the biggest problem facing America." But talking to reporter Chris Moody from Yahoo News at a stop on a book tour through Florida last November, he let loose with some of the nastiest opinions about the drug epidemic—and addicts themselves—since, well, the old Newt in his heyday as House Speaker. "If you sell drugs, we’re going to kill you,” he famously said in 1995, advocating the death penalty for anyone caught bringing illegal drugs into the U.S., including smugglers of marijuana (two ounces or more).

Judging from Moody's interview, little in the ensuing 25 years has caused the onetime history professor to revise his opinion. He still believes drug dealers should be executed, though he now considers limiting capital punishment to cartel leaders and other high-ups.

Gingrich quickly dismissed medical marijuana as “a joke [because] doctors will prescribe it for anybody that walks in." (True enough, in some cases.) He went on to darkly predict that the legalization of pot “would tear American society apart," employing the old chestnut that herb is a "gateway drug" to harder substances and repeating the lie that nations where pot is legal soon see large numbers of citizens becoming jobless, sick in body and mind, homeless—and therefore dependent on government handouts.

The U.S. should get more “aggressive” not only in its conduct of the war on drugs, he said, but also in its expansion of drug testing of millions of struggling Americans who rely on federal entitlement programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare, Medicaid. Drug users, under his presidency, would be denied benefits.

No one would call these views, voiced almost offhandedly, mainstream. Indeed, they are so far-out as to appeal only to the most fanatical anti-drug fringe. According to recent surveys of U.S. drug attitudes, Americans have tacked dramatically away from such punitive positions. Instead a majority of Americans now support the legalization of pot and more treatment/less imprisonment for users of “harder” drugs. Will Americans even take Gingrich's views seriously? Needless to say, these "aggressive" drug policies, which rely on increased government intervention, were clearly not crafted to win libertarians and other self-identified Independents to his cause.

It would be tempting to simply dismiss these opinions as yet another example of what Republican Senator Charles Grassley called Gingrich’s temperamental compulsion to “fire first, aim later." But in fact Gingrich’s record during his 20 years in the House offer only a single stark departure from this Big Government approach to addicts. In his most over-the-top utterance, the Speaker advocated in 1995 public mass executions of convicted drug smugglers as an effective form of deterrence and prevention. “The first time we execute 27 or 30 or 35 people at one time, and the [traffickers] go around Columbia and France and Thailand and Mexico, and they say, ‘Hi, would you like to carry some drugs into the U.S., the price of carrying drugs will have gone up dramatically," he said.

Appearing on The O’Reilly Factor at the time, Gingrich agreed with his host that the tiny nation of Singapore, which hangs drug dealers and imprisons drug users in state-run “rehab centers,” was the best model for the U.S. to emulate. “I think it’s time we get the stomach for that, Bill,” Gingrich said. “I would dramatically expand testing. I would make rehabilitation mandatory. We have every right as a country to demand of our citizens that they quit doing illegal things which…are destroying civilization." When critics pointed out that, if implemented, the draconian measure would hardly make a dent in giant drug cartel operations because it would leave the kingpins untouched, Gingrich dropped the issue—until in late November, when he resurrected the Singapore-as-role model link.

As for the War on Drugs itself, which the Obama administration has already militarized to an unprecedented degree, Gingrich would double-down on this four-decade-long wager. As Speaker, he called for a “World War II style victory plan—a decisive, all but cataclysmic effort to break the back of the drug culture.” If implemented, he promised in sharp words, "the U.S. could quickly eradicate its drug problem." He even set a date for this ambitious goal—Jan. 1, 2000, the start of the New Millennium. Now that we're 11 years into the century, with victory looking increasingly dim, Gingrich has scaled back his "cataclysmic" rhetoric, advocating instead “the overhaul of the border patrol, the INS, U.S. Customs and the DEA handling of drugs.” He wants the National Guard to be permanently deployed at the border as soon as triple fencing has sealed it off.

On the challenging issues involving treatment for addiction and alcoholism, Gingrich's attention wanes markedly. The AA-inspired candidate has offered only boiler-plate statements promoting faith-based rehabilitation, though he is beginning to backpedal from his former advocacy of mandatory sentencing of addicts to state-sponsored rehabs. “I don’t think actually locking up users is a very good thing,” he said in the Yahoo News interview. “I think finding ways to sanction them and to give them medical help and to get them to detox is a more logical long-term policy.” How this policy differs from the status quo and where the funding will come from are the kind of specific problems on which the weak-on-the-execution Gingrich typically founders.

“Addictive drugs deprive you of full citizenship and they lead you to a dependency which is antithetical to being an American,” the AA-inspired candidate said, laying on the stigma pretty thick.

Though he prides himself on his keen "futurist" predilections, two decades of advances in the science of addiction have apparently passed him by. Gingrich’s take-no-prisoners drug policy remains strikingly stuck in 1994, oblivious to the swift-changing addiction landscape, from medicine to morality. That addiction is a brain disease afflicting alcoholics no less than crack heads or junkies (let alone gamblers) seems an idea that has never registered. The corollary, that chronic diseases like addiction demand public-health interventions rather than interdiction and stigmatization, seems equally foreign to him.

And for a man who says he was saved by the Big Book and the Twelve And Twelve, he seems deficient in the very quality—empathy—that drives the thriving fellowship in the rooms. Gingrich may have found his Higher Power, but he seems to have missed AA's deeper point as articulated in the Twelfth Step: "the art of helping others and selfless service." “Addictive drugs deprive you of full citizenship and they lead you to a dependency which is antithetical to being an American,” he said in November, laying on the stigma pretty thick.

Gingrich was not always a drug warrior, however. In 1981, soon after he was elected to the House, he drafted and introduced legislation to make marijuana legal for medical purposes based on the positive results of the first-ever study of the pot for pain—mainly for patients with cancer and glaucoma (AIDS had not yet exploded). A year later he published a letter in the Journal of the American Medial Association decrying the federal ban as anti-science and Big Government. “Federal policies do not reflect a factual or balanced assessment of marijuana’s use as a medicant,” he wrote.

Now, as president, he says that he would deploy all available federal enforcement powers to crack down on medical marijuana sales even in states where it is legal.

How did this onetime proponent of medical marijuana come to advocate the death penalty for drug importers ? Gingrich's record is unclear on this question, and repeated calls to his Campaign Headquarters in Atlanta were not returned.

But over the years he has never allowed consistency to hold back his ambition. In 1996, when asked by the Wall Street Journal, how his hardcore anti-pot advocacy squared with his own admitted use of the drug in graduate school, he said, “See, when I smoked pot it was illegal but not immoral. Now, it is illegal and immoral. The law didn’t change, only the morality…That’s why you go to jail and I don’t.”

Walter Armstrong is Articles Editor at The Fix. Additional Reporting by Luke Walker and Jed Bickman.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
walter armstron.jpeg

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