A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Gingrich Divorce Myth


Q: Did Newt Gingrich ask his former wife to sign divorce papers on her deathbed?

A: No. Jackie Battley is still alive, and the couple was already in divorce proceedings at the time of the 1980 hospital visit. But she was recovering from surgery to remove a tumor, and the former House speaker admits that they “got into an argument.”

FULL QUESTION

Did Newt Gingrich ask his former wife to sign divorce papers on her deathbed?

FULL ANSWER

For almost three decades, Newt Gingrich has been dogged by a story that he served his first wife divorce papers while she lay in a hospital bed battling — or in some versions dying from — cancer. It didn’t happen that way.

In fact, Gingrich, the presidential candidate and former House speaker, and his first wife, Jackie Battley, had already separated before she was hospitalized. He had filed for divorce, and she was seeking alimony and custody of their two children. And while Battley had earlier undergone cancer surgery, this time she was in the hospital recovering from surgery to remove a tumor that — according to one of the couple’s daughters — was benign. Battley isn’t talking to reporters, but she’s still very much alive.

Divorce Story Origins

The story of the hospital visit started with a lengthy and unflattering profile of Gingrich that was published in Mother Jones magazine in 1984. Author David Osborne reported an anecdote from Gingrich’s former press secretary, Lee Howell, who said that Gingrich wanted his wife to sign off on a written list of divorce terms while she was recovering from surgery. Howell said Battley was “still sort of out of it” at the time.

Mother Jones, Nov. 1, 1984: Jackie had undergone surgery for cancer of the uterus during the 1978 campaign, a fact Gingrich was not loath to use in conversations or speeches that year. After the separation in 1980, she had to be operated on again, to remove another tumor.

While she was still in the hospital, according to Howell, “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.”

Others later embellished that account, some claiming that Gingrich served his former wife divorce papers, and that she was dying of cancer. But there is no support for the idea that papers were served, or that Battley’s condition was life-threatening at the time.

Update, Dec. 27: In fact, Newt Gingrich had already filed for divorce about two months before the September visit, and Battley was contesting the divorce. Newt Gingrich said the marriage was “irretrievably broken” in a “complaint for divorce” filed with the court on July 14, 1980. Battley (then Jacqueline Gingrich) had been officially served with the divorce suit in July. She filed an answer stating that she had “ample grounds for divorce” but “does not desire one at this time.” She asked for alimony and support, for custody of the children, for a “reasonable division” of property, and for her husband to pay her legal fees in the divorce.

These papers were made public for the first time by CNN in December, 2011.

In a 1985 story, the Washington Post quoted Battley as saying that Gingrich had visited her in the hospital, and that he wanted to discuss terms of a divorce during a visit in which their two daughters were also present.

Jackie Battley, Jan. 3, 1985: He walked out in the spring of 1980 and I returned to Georgia. By September, I went into the hospital for my third surgery. The two girls came to see me, and said Daddy is downstairs and could he come up? When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from the surgery.

Battley said in the 1985 interview that her husband’s desire for a divorce came as “a complete surprise” to her, but Gingrich was quoted in the same story as saying the two had talked about divorce “off and on since 1969.” Asked if he had handled the matter in an insensitive manner, Gingrich told the Post: “All I can say is when you been talking about divorce for 11 years and you’ve gone to a marriage counselor, and the other person doesn’t want the divorce, I’m not sure there is any sensitive way to handle it.”

According to the former couple’s second daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, the divorce had been set in motion months before the hospital visit. Cushman broke her silence about the incident in a column in May of this year, around the time Gingrich announced that he was running for president. She wrote that her parents told her and her sister that they were divorcing well before her mother was hospitalized in the summer of 1980.

Cushman, May 2011: As for my parents’ divorce, I can remember when they told me.

It was the spring of 1980.

I was 13 years old, and we were about to leave Fairfax, Va., and drive to Carrollton, Ga., for the summer. My parents told my sister and me that they were getting a divorce as our family of four sat around the kitchen table of our ranch home.

Soon afterward, my mom, sister and I got into our light-blue Chevrolet Impala and drove back to Carrollton.

Later that summer, Mom went to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for surgery to remove a tumor. While she was there, Dad took my sister and me to see her.

It is this visit that has turned into the infamous hospital visit about which many untruths have been told. I won’t repeat them. You can look them up online if you are interested in untruths. But here’s what happened:

My mother and father were already in the process of getting a divorce, which she requested.

Dad took my sister and me to the hospital to see our mother.

She had undergone surgery the day before to remove a tumor.

The tumor was benign.

Cushman wrote that her mother requested the divorce, but that conflicts with other accounts. Update, Dec. 27: In fact, the court papers made public by CNN show that Cushman’s recollection is incorrect. It was her father who sought the divorce, and her mother was still fighting it at the time. The Mother Jones article said that it was Gingrich who asked for it in April 1980, and Gingrich’s statement to the Post in 1985 suggests that he wanted the divorce and Battley didn’t. But all accounts agree that the divorce was in the works prior to Battley having her surgery that year.

And while Cushman’s column was intended to “set the record straight,” she didn’t say exactly what happened during that hospital visit all those years ago.

For years, Gingrich has said the much-told divorce story was false, but he has also chosen not to discuss the specific details. But last month, in an interview with UnionLeader.com, Gingrich again disputed the anecdote published in the Mother Jones article. However, he admitted to arguing with Battley in the hospital.

UnionLeader.com, Nov. 18: “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 told Fox News’ Sean Hannity the same story in an interview on Nov. 30. But Gingrich didn’t say what the argument was about in either interview. And Cushman, also in an interview with UnionLeader.com, said that her mother will no longer talk to media about the incident because she believes her earlier words were “misconstrued” and “misquoted.”

So, what do we know for certain? One, Battley and Gingrich were already separated and in the process of getting a divorce when he visited her in the hospital. And two, Battley wasn’t dying of cancer. Also, the “yellow pad” and handwritten list of divorce terms mentioned in the original Mother Jones story aren’t mentioned in the accounts given by Battley, Gingrich or Cushman, who all were present.

But even by Gingrich’s account it was an unpleasant conversation at a time when his wife was hospitalized. Beyond that, the details of what was actually discussed remain cloudy, to say the least.

Update, Dec. 27: The court papers made public by CNN reveal that at the time of the hospital visit Battley was seeking alimony, support, custody of the children and legal fees. She got them all.

The settlement (made final in February 1981) granted her custody of the daughters, a minimum of $1,000 per month in alimony (to be adjusted upward if Newt Gingrich’s income rose), $400 per month on child support, ownership of the couple’s home in Georgia, a 3-year-old Chevrolet Impala and $7,209 to cover her legal costs.

More than a decade later, in 1993, she filed a “motion for contempt” to compel Gingrich to make good on his agreement to take out a $100,000 life insurance policy on himself, which he then agreed to do. Then in March, 1994 (the year before he became speaker of the House) Gingrich agreed to increase his alimony payments to $1,650 per month.

Correction, Dec. 27: Our original headline on this item incorrectly stated that the couple had “agreed” to seek divorce prior to the hospital visit, and one line in the body of our original article also stated incorrectly that both “were planning” to divorce. As the actual court papers now make clear, Battley was contesting the divorce and the two were negotiating a settlement.

— D’Angelo Gore

Sources

Farhi, Paul. “Aspects of Gingrich divorce story distorted.” Washington Post. 20 Nov 2011.

Gingrich Cushman, Jackie. “Setting the Record Straight.” Creators.com. May 2011.

Osborne, David. “Newt Gingrich: Shining Knight of the Post-Reagan Right.” Mother Jones. 1 Nov 1984.

Romano, Lois. “Newt Gingrich, Maverick on the Hill; The New Right’s Abrasive Point Man Talks of Changing His Tone and Tactics.” Washington Post. 3 Jan 1985.

DiStaso, John. “Gingrich, daughter dispute three-decade-old divorce story.” UnionLeader.com. 18 Nov 2011.

“Hannity.” Transcript. Fox News. 30 Nov 2011.

Duke, Alan “Newly recovered court files cast doubt on Gingrich version of first divorce” CNN. 27 Dec 2011.