Speaking up for dad

Last modified: 12/17/2011 12:00:00 AM
When Jackie Gingrich Cushman, Newt Gingrich's daughter, traveled to Alaska to speak with a Republican group in February, a volunteer picked her up at the airport.

When Cushman, 45, called her mother - Newt Gingrich's first wife - to let her know she'd arrived safely, the volunteer was shocked, Cushman said in an interview with the Monitor yesterday.

"Your mom's alive?" the volunteer asked.

Yes, Newt Gingrich's first wife, Jackie Battley Gingrich, is a retired 75-year-old-school teacher living in Georgia.

"We really do have a lot of people who just read things, and they just assumed they were true," Cushman said while meeting with Republican women voters at a tea party in Merrimack.

But in a 1984 Mother Jones article, a former Gingrich aide described the then-Georgia congressman as cruelly discussing the conditions of a divorce with his first wife when she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. He even took notes on a yellow legal pad while the woman was still "out of it," according to the article.

Like a perverse version of the children's game "telephone," the story has spun out of control, so even some supporters - like the volunteer in Alaska - think Newt Gingrich told his dying wife

that he was leaving her for the woman he'd cheated on her with.

It is a "vicious lie," the Gingrich campaign says on its website.

Jackie Battley Gingrich declines interview requests, but in May, Cushman, a conservative blogger and mother of two, wrote a column, "Setting the Record Straight."

It was her mother, not her father, who requested the divorce. Her mother didn't have cancer; the tumor was benign. Gingrich went to the hospital that day so his girls could visit, not to discuss the divorce.

"As with many divorces, it was hard and painful for all involved, but life continued," Cushman wrote.

Weeks ago, the Gingrich campaign launched a website, newt.org/answers, devoted exclusively to answering attacks on Gingrich. It cites Cushman's column.

And now Cushman and her sister, Kathy Lubbers, are campaigning for their dad in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Cushman was in New Hampshire yesterday to meet with voters and host the campaign's holiday party last night. She is scheduled to leave today.

"What I'm trying to tell people is, he really is a great guy. He really has balanced the budget. He really has reformed welfare. He's done all these serious things that we need at a serious time," Cushman said.

To be sure, Gingrich critics point out that both of Gingrich's daughters are very much a part of his financial empire.

Cushman's website promotes the two books she's written with her father, 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From our Family to Yours and The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches That Every American Should Own, and her sister is the former president of Gingrich Communications and now a senior aide to the campaign.

Moreover, Cushman was only 13 at the time of the now-infamous hospital visit and surely couldn't understand what was really going on, skeptics say.

But telling their side of the story is nothing new for Gingrich's daughters. Shaking hands, passing out bumper stickers and making phone calls was just part of growing up Gingrich.

"He's always been about letting us be involved and look at things as a learning experience," Cushman said.

She can't remember a life before politics.

Gingrich lived in a rural district, running from Atlanta's southern suburbs almost to the Alabama border. There was no blogosphere, no YouTube and media buys in the Atlanta television market were out of their price range.

So it was all retail politics, all the time.

"We spent most of our weekends and all of our summers driving around," Cushman said.

"If there was a small crossroads with a country store, we would stop at it and meet the one person there," she said.

"We'd go to Chick-fil-A in the mall and he'd be reaching over the counter, 'Newt Gingrich, nice to meet you, sure going to need your help in the fall,' " she said, impersonating her father.

Cushman said she learned early on not to allow criticism of her father bother her. When she was about 8, Cushman came to school after one of her father's early congressional losses and a school administrator expressed satisfaction Gingrich had lost.

"I just remember being taken aback. And I think ever since then I've kind of not worried as much about what other people said."

And she kept on campaigning with him.

"We didn't have babysitters They'd take us, we'd go with them all the time," Cushman said.

"He'd always say, 'Listen to my speeches and tell me what I should do differently' . . . probably to make us pay attention and be quiet," she said.

It is a tradition carried on by her children: Maggie, 12 and Robert, 10, whom Gingrich refers to as his "debate coaches."

"She reminds him to smile and Robert reminds him that his answers should be shorter and more concise. And they are correct," Cushman said.

Echoing campaign staff and Gingrich himself, Cushman said her father is simply a different man now than he was 20 years ago.

"He listens better to people, both in everyday conversation and in discussions," she said. He has fun with his grandchildren - visiting zoos and museums, exchanging emails full of historical trivia questions and even the occasional game of chess.

"He has changed with having grandchildren," Cushman said. Her father was portrayed in a negative way by the national press, she said, and that's what people remember of him from that time.

"He's not that person. He's a great guy," she said.

Once the interview ended, Cushman went into a kitchen full of about 20 voters, most of them undecided, and made her case. Just as she's done her entire life.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)

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