Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a town hall rally in Bluffton, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton, File)
Washington — In mid-1970 an unusual job application landed in the stack of resumes at West Georgia College.
A young man finishing up his Ph.D. and looking for his first teaching job ditched the standard resume-and-cover-letter approach and instead wrote about his travels abroad, what it meant to grow up as the son of an Army colonel, the 100-plus books he'd read in the past year.
"We were all very impressed," recalls Mel Steely, one of the history professors who culled applications.
Thus did Newt Gingrich become Professor Gingrich. It was Step 1 in a carefully laid plan that would propel the 27-year-old father of two from Carrollton to Congress within eight years on an audacious quest, as he saw it, to save Western civilization.
Flash forward four decades and here is Gingrich, once again the unconventional candidate, more impressed than ever with the value of his own thinking, making yet another unusual job application, this time for president.
Risen improbably from the ranks of GOP presidential discards, Gingrich is holding forth in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond, lobbing rhetorical grenades that delight Republican voters hungry for someone with more moxie than Mitt Romney.
Barack Obama? "A radical who's incompetent."
Romney? He's fine, says Gingrich — if all you're looking for is a manager.
And what of Gingrich himself? The former House speaker who resigned from Congress in a cloud of ethics problems and GOP discontent with his bombastic antics now casts himself as an older, wiser Newt: A 68-year-old grandfather who's settled down with wife No. 3, embraced God through Catholicism, discovered a passion for golf and the Green Bay Packers, and gained new perspectives on how to run a government by working on the outside for the past decade.
"I believe that I am a much more disciplined, much more mature person than I was 12 years ago," he says in an Associated Press interview.
Perhaps, but he has been here before.
Listen to the Newt Gingrich of 1985: "That was the old me — abrasive and confrontational. You'll see a change now."
Gingrich was a popular assistant professor, but never bothered to seek tenure at West Georgia College. He'd selected the academic outpost in large part because he needed to run for Congress from somewhere, and the voting trends in Carrollton looked promising. Soon he was spreading out census data next to the stacks of blueberry pancakes on Steely's kitchen table, and plotting an end to the Southern Democrats' century-long stranglehold on the 6th Congressional District.
It took three tries, but Gingrich finally won in a 1978 race that previewed his win-at-all-costs mindset. In a speech to college Republicans that year, he told the students: "One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire, but are lousy in politics."
Democrats, he added admiringly, "understand that cannibalism is the nature of the business."
Gingrich was ready to upend things up in Congress before he even arrived. Then-Rep. Pete du Pont, R-Del., remembers candidate Gingrich coming up for a visit — not to seek counsel, but to provide it. "He was telling me all of his advice about how the Congress should be doing this and that," du Pont recalls.
He liked Gingrich's ideas and energy so much that in 1986, when du Pont decided to run for president, he gave Gingrich control of his GOPAC political action committee. Gingrich set to work building a farm team of Republican candidates in the states — and a band of GOP revolutionaries within the Capitol.
"It was clear that he was looking to be an agent for transformation," says former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., who joined with Gingrich in creating an upstart group of House Republicans called the Conservative Opportunity Society. "We were viewed as the people that the Republican establishment didn't want others to associate with."
Gingrich was scornful of the GOP leadership's defeatist attitude toward the Democratic majority and set out to show that Republicans were not to be trifled with — even if he had to make the case to an empty House chamber, hoping to hook C-SPAN viewers far afield. He'd already claimed a couple of Democratic scalps by pushing ethics charges, and now he settled on a target so bold that even Walker remembers feeling uncomfortable at the stretch: House Speaker Jim Wright.
Gingrich plotted his assault patiently and meticulously, pursuing his prey for nearly two years. In the end, Wright resigned in 1989 after the House ethics committee charged him with violating rules that limit lawmakers' gifts and outside income.
As Wright stepped down, he called for an end to "this period of mindless cannibalism."
No one would accuse Newt Gingrich of being a Boy Scout Republican.
Driving north in a red 1969 VW Beetle, Gingrich had headed for Congress with one wife and before long had a different one. Now he's on his third.
They're just a few branches of what his youngest sister, Candace Gingrich-Jones, calls a "rather knotty" family tree.
Gingrich's mother, Kathleen, or Kit, was 16 when she married Newton McPherson, a mechanic. The marriage fell apart within days, but Newton Leroy McPherson was born nine months later in Harrisburg, Pa. Three years later, Newt's mother married Robert Gingrich, an Army officer who adopted "Newtie."
Gingrich, proud to call himself an Army brat, grew up in Pennsylvania, Kansas, France, Germany and Georgia, where he went to high school. Young Newt tutored pretty girls but was more interested in his books — and his geometry teacher, Jackie Battley. He married her at 19. She was 26.
Robert Gingrich boycotted the wedding. Kit Gingrich, now deceased, said in a 1996 interview with PBS' "Frontline" that her husband felt "there was too much riding on Newt even then as to what he was going to be, what he was going to do. And marrying his math teacher was not one of them."
In fact, Jackie put her husband through a decade of schooling and turned out to be an important ally as Gingrich pursued a seat in Congress. But even as Gingrich campaigned as a family-values candidate, his marriage was disintegrating amid rumors of infidelity.
His second wife, Marianne, has said Gingrich proposed to her before the divorce from Jackie was final in 1981, and they were married six months later. That marriage ended in divorce in 2000, and Gingrich admitted he'd already taken up with Callista Bisek, a former congressional aide who would become his third wife. The speaker who pilloried President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky was himself having an affair at the time.
With Newtonian chutzpah, Gingrich last spring attributed his infidelities in part to his work for the American people.
"There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate," he told the Christian-oriented CBN network.
For all of that, Gingrich describes the family of his childhood as the stuff of Norman Rockwell. One of his daughters, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, recalls the whole family immersed in books, taking long walks together, going to the movies, camping out with college students in the Okefenokee Swamp.
These days, he's the doting grandfather to her two children, and Cushman says she's got to scold Gingrich to stop emailing her 12-year-old daughter after her bedtime.
Gingrich-Jones, 23 years younger than her brother, describes Newt as a "fun person." The chatter at family gatherings tends to be about food, music, sports, Guinness, she says.
Gingrich-Jones, who is gay, says she's never discussed her sexuality with Gingrich, who was married and gone before she was born. But she says that after she came out in 1987, Gingrich told their mother, "it's your life and you have the right to live it the way you want to."
She says Gingrich and wife Callista sent wedding and shower gifts when she married Rebecca Jones in 2009, and the four went out to dinner together last February and saw a play that Rebecca had written.
In public, the same Newt Gingrich calls gay marriage an "aberration" and suggests a constitutional amendment to ban it is in order if the federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is overturned.
"Yeah, it does hurt," says Gingrich-Jones.
She wonders what he really thinks.
She's not the only one to wonder where Gingrich's heart is.
He's got a stem-winder of a stump speech that's catnip to conservatives, with its pledges to follow the Reagan and Thatcher playbooks. Extending first one hand and then the other, he stands before voters and offers them disarmingly easy choices: A food-stamp president or a paycheck president. An "Alinsky radical" or an "American exceptionalist." A proponent of class warfare or a creator of jobs.
But then there are those pesky paradoxes.
Gingrich was for individual mandates for health insurance before he was against them. He was for U.S. intervention in Libya before he was against it. Just three years ago he planted himself on a couch with Democrat Nancy Pelosi to talk up the need for action on climate change, then called it the dumbest thing he'd done in years. He opened his campaign with a rant against fellow Republican Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare as "right-wing social engineering," then apologized. He criticized politicians for getting cozy with Freddie Mac, yet collected more than $1.6 million in consulting fees from the federally backed mortgage giant. He's running as an outsider, yet making the case that "having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing."
The candidate who's tried to present himself as the voice of calm and reason in GOP presidential debates has made an art form of what Clinton once labeled institutionalized name-calling. He's still quick to brand Democrats as dumb, pathetic, disgusting and more.
"I never found him to be a conservative or anything else," says former Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla., who served with Gingrich in the House. "I found him to be somebody who was primarily interested in his own advancement. ... Newt has had one primary interest for his entire public life, and that's Newt."
A liberal standard-bearer who disagrees with Gingrich on just about everything has reached an opposite conclusion.
"He is an absolute right-wing zealot — but I think he really believes that stuff," says the Rev. Al Sharpton, who traveled the country with Gingrich in 2009 to promote education reform. "I think he's sincere. That's what scares me about him."
Whatever his shifts in conviction, Gingrich consistently presents himself as the smartest guy in the room, tossing out ideas faster than a pitching machine spits out baseballs, and decrying those who haven't learned the lessons of history as he has.
He's got Day One plans to sign 100 to 200 executive orders as president. He thinks child labor laws are "truly stupid." He wants to transform government with Lean Six Sigma principles of efficiency. In fact, why wait for Inauguration Day? He'll have Congress get to work on repealing "Obamacare" and financial regulations before he even takes the oath of office.
"We don't rely enough on actually knowing things," he tells one interviewer.
It's an intellectual fervor that Gingrich supporters love.
Walker casts the Gingrich idea factory as evidence of "a reasonably complex leader with a very agile mind."
Edwards dismisses it as an act.
"When Newt would walk through the halls, he would be very careful to be clutching reams of paper, and books and articles and newspapers and magazines, as if to say, 'Everybody look at me. I'm the thinker. I'm the reader,'" Edwards recalls. "A lot of us would just roll our eyes."
Gingrich's bare-knuckled assault on Wright set him on a trajectory to his own tumultuous reign as speaker a few years later.
"It's a whole Newt world," one excited Republican proclaimed as Gingrich took charge in 1995 after he led congressional Republicans in a rout of Democrats in the 1994 midterm elections that ended their 40-year majority in the House.
And so it seemed.
A copy of Gingrich's "Contract With America," the policy agenda he pushed through Congress in his first 100 days as speaker, now sits in the Smithsonian. His tape-recorded GOPAC messages — "We Are a Majority," "Visualizing Victory" and more — are part of the Library of Congress' national recording registry. Time named him "Man of the Year" in 1995.
The balance of power shifted abruptly from the White House to Capitol Hill, and Clinton was left to assert gamely that "the president is relevant."
What followed was a period of both great productivity and great turmoil. Gingrich and Clinton ultimately figured out that they needed each other: "If I didn't pass it, he couldn't sign it. And if he didn't sign it, it didn't matter that I passed it," Gingrich recently told CNN.
Together, they balanced the budget, overhauled welfare, cut taxes.
But Gingrich's speakership also was combustible. He ran roughshod over fellow Republicans in his headlong quest to, as he put it, "drive through change on a scale that Washington wasn't comfortable with."
Republicans would sit through leadership meetings that turned into five-hour lectures on ancient history. They'd watch Gingrich pop out policy pronouncements on Sunday talk shows that were at odds with what they'd agreed upon. Some on the right thought he compromised too much.
He got most of the blame for shutting down the government — twice — in the budget wars, and made things worse by pouting over a perceived slight in his treatment by Clinton on Air Force One. He took heat for pushing the House to impeach Clinton.
And the man who tripped up Wright with ethics charges ultimately was caught in a similar snare.
In January 1997, Gingrich became the first speaker ever reprimanded and fined for ethics violations, slapped with a $300,000 penalty. Gingrich admitted he'd failed to follow legal advice concerning the use of tax-exempt contributions to advance potentially partisan goals.
He limped to re-election as speaker and by midsummer was fending off a revolt from GOP dissidents weary of his antics and tired of defending him.
"Some members had frustration because he wasn't all he dreamed to be," Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., said at the time.
Little more than a year later, it was all over for Gingrich when Democrats made unexpected gains in Congress and in the states in the 1998 elections.
Three days after the election, Gingrich announced plans to resign not just the speakership but his seat in Congress.
The man who'd once advised students that cannibalism is the nature of the business told House Republicans, "I'm willing to lead but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."
Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed.