Golden Oldies: Newt and the "cancer bed divorce" myth

With Newt Gingrich continuing to surge in the polls, plenty of stories are bubbling to the surface, including things from the distant past. And let’s face it… Newt has been knocking around US politics for an awfully long time, with tales of many of his exploits being told and retold until they pass into legend. Of course, you know what they say about legends.

[countable] an old story about famous people and events in the past. Legends are not usually true

One of the more nasty ones is the persistent tale of how Newt went to see his wife as she lay dying of cancer in her hospital bed and presented her with divorce papers. Ouch. That’s a pretty unpleasant story to float about anyone, and apparently it’s so temptingly salacious that it keeps getting hinted at in the media and I’ve seen it cropping up again on Twitter as recently as last night. Unfortunately for the gossip minded, nearly every aspect of the story is false and has been roundly debunked by what should be considered a pretty reliable source – his own daughter who was in the hospital room at the time. (Hat tip to OTB.)

So, to correct the record, here is what happened: My mother, Jackie Battley Gingrich, is very much alive, and often spends time with my family. I am lucky to have such a “Miracle Mom,” as I titled her in a column this week.

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.

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

Yes, Newt is on his third marriage and some conservatives will raise questions about his marital track record, as they are entitled to do. But repeating this old chestnut is hurtful and slanderous. (For the record, I actually believed this story myself for quite a while and I know I made reference to it, so I’d like to apologize once again as well.)

There will be more than enough real material for critics to debate coming from Gingrich’s decades of public (and private) life, but we should focus on what is accurate and verifiable. So if you see anyone repeating this myth, do everyone a favor and point them to his daughter’s account of the story.

UPDATE: From the Credit Where Credit Is Due department. The Washington Post also douses the myth with cold water.