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November 18. 2011 6:13PM

Gingrich, daughter dispute three-decade-old divorce story

By JOHN DiSTASO
Senior Political Reporter

MANCHESTER -- You probably have heard this one before: Newt Gingrich walks into his first wife's hospital room and -- as she is either suffering with or dying from cancer -- serves her with divorce papers.

The story, in various versions, has been around for three decades. But in exclusive interviews with UnionLeader.com Friday, the former House Speaker and one of his daughters, who was present at the time, say that it is not true.

Gingrich, 68, now a presidential candidate married for a third time, said that he and his then-estranged wife argued that day, which he now realizes was “stupid.”

But Jackie Battley Gingrich did not have cancer in 1980. And at 75, she is very much alive today.

The story is again rising in prominence as Gingrich's presidential campaign gains momentum.

Gingrich and daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman said that Gingrich and his wife had separated and were in the process of getting divorced before she entered the hospital for surgery for the removal of what turned out to be a benign tumor.

The story that he demanded a divorce first emerged -- inaccurately, Gingrich said -- in a 1984 profile on him in “Mother Jones” magazine. (In an interview with the Washington Post Friday, the magazine author stands by his version.)

Gingrich told UnionLeader.com he believes one-time adversary, the late Democratic House speaker Thomas “Tip” O'Neill, initiated an “explicit hatchet job” in order to “get Gingrich.” Gingrich offered no proof of O'Neill's involvement.

In the Mother Jones story, one-time Gingrich press secretary Lee Howell is quoted as saying that while Mrs. Gingrich was in the hospital, “Newt came up there with his yellow legal pad and he had a list of things on how the divorce was going to be handled. He wanted her to sign it. She was still recovering from surgery, still sort of out of it, and he comes in with a yellow sheet of paper, handwritten, and wants her to sign it.”

Gingrich said the account was not true.

A 1985 story in The Washington Post had Battley saying that during the hospital visit, Gingrich wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce.

“The two girls came to see me, and said Daddy is downstairs and could he come up,” Battley is quoted as telling the Post at the time. “When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from surgery.”

Daughter Jackie Cushman told UnionLeader.com that while she could not specifically recall what her mother said in that story, her mother has told her often, and as recently as last week, “‘My words have been misconstrued,' and she feels that she was so misquoted that the reason she will never talk to the media again is that she was done such a disservice.

“She has not given any quotes since then. She refuses to talk to any reporters,” Cushman said.
Gingrich said the hospital room story, especially the Mother Jones account, “took on a life of its own.”

“What did happen in the hospital room is something that any couple who has gone though this can totally identify with,” Gingrich said.

“She was recovering and I actually went by with the girls (Jackie and her sister, Kathy Gingrich Lubbers) to see her and be with her, and I was trying to be helpful. And we got into an argument, which I think people who have gone through divorces can probably identify with.”

He said that in retrospect, going to the hospital that day, let alone arguing, was “stupid.”

“We're talking about something which happened in 1980, so I can tell you 31 years later, especially how these things develop a life of their own, as a much more mature person, today I would keep my mouth shut,” he said.

Cushman wrote an opinion piece in May of this year which talked in general terms about the hospital visit. (To be published on Page B3 of this weekend's New Hampshire Sunday News.)

“As Jackie points out in her column,” Newt Gingrich said, “her mother's recollection is that she, in fact, filed to divorce me. So, if anything, she would have been serving papers on me.

“What happens in public life is that I'm sure somebody had heard that we had argued and tried to turn that into the next stage and then the next stage and then ‘Mother Jones' said, ‘OK, what's the most malicious way we can write this?' And then it gets a life of its own.”

Gingrich said, “That article after all is 27 years old and I think my daughter has decisively repudiated it,” he said, adding that “of course,” he repudiates it as well.

Gingrich explained why he let what he believes is an untrue account go unanswered for all of these years.

“I just never wanted to speak about it because I don't want to say anything negative or pick any fight with the mother of my two daughters or the grandmother of my two grandchildren,” she said. “She is not a public figure and she does not want to be sucked into all this stuff. And I respect that.”

Gingrich said he expects questions on the subject to re-emerge.

“This is vetting a potential President of the United States,” he said.

He said that while he campaigns, “I'm pretty open about the fact that I did things in my life when I was younger and more immature that I have had to ask God's forgiveness for and have had to seek reconciliation for, and I would not hold any of it up as a model for people to follow.

“Everywhere I've been,” he said, “the overwhelming majority of people look at a 68-year-old grandfather who is prepared to admit that he's imperfect and that he's had to seek God's grace. And in response, there is an awful lot of, ‘There but for the grace of God goes me,' and remarkably little judgmentalism.”

Cushman said the inaccurate stories and commentaries “get a little old now because not only do I have to hear it and my sister and my mother have to hear it, but now my children have to hear it as well.”

She said that although it was a difficult time for the family, “all the surrounding untruths that made it look so ugly really never happened.”

Today, Cushman said, “We are all still a family and we still love each other. My mother and father love their grandchildren and we all moved on.”

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