WASHINGTON — Just who is Newt Gingrich anyway?
Is he the big thinking rhetorical bomb-thrower who led Republicans to power in the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in four decades, only to have his troops rebel against him four years later?
Is he the undisciplined, self-absorbed House speaker who admitted that a 1995 shutdown of the federal government was prompted in part by what he perceived as a cold shoulder and shabby treatment by President Bill Clinton during a long Air Force One flight?
Is Gingrich the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do leader who pushed for Clinton's impeachment in 1998 stemming from his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky even while having an affair of his own with a congressional aide?
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Or is he the professorial, adult in the room, elder statesman seen on TV during this year's Republican presidential debates — a forum that's helped catapult him from the bottom tier to the top rank of GOP White House hopefuls. Gingrich now leads in national and early-primary-state polls and is increasingly viewed as the top conservative alternative to the other front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"Anybody who looks at me as a 68-year-old grandfather and says, 'All right, has he grown wiser, has he learned from his experiences, is he somebody that I would trust to lead the American people?'" Gingrich said recently on Fox News' "Fox & Friends." "They've got to come to their own judgment about that."
As he seeks the Republican presidential nomination, even Gingrich concedes that choice could be a difficult call for voters, as his life — both political and personal — has been a rollercoaster ride of soaring highs and messy lows.
"My tenure as Speaker has been marked by both unprecedented accomplishment and unprecedented conflict," Gingrich penned in the liner notes to "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," his 1998 mea culpa book. "I have learned some difficult lessons that will shape my outlook forever."
Gingrich has been hailed for being a brilliant political strategist who authored the "Contract with America," a 10-point conservative legislative agenda that served as the cornerstone for the GOP takeover of the House in 1994.
As speaker, Gingrich played a significant role, along with the Clinton White House, in revamping the nation's welfare system and balancing the federal budget, his supporters say.
"He focused on those things," said former Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pa., a Gingrich friend and campaign surrogate. "Newt does spin out ideas like every minute because he thinks that way. Sometimes it comes off that he's not focused, but he is, and has accomplishments to prove it."
But his tenure in Congress was also controversial: He earned a reputation as a hyper-partisan, polarizing figure from his sharp attacks on Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, which produced an ethics investigation into Wright and led to his resignation in 1989.
Gingrich later went through a rigorous ethics probe into his own activities that in January 1997 resulted in him becoming the first speaker to be reprimanded by the House. He was forced to pay a record $300,000 fine for violating tax law and lying about it to the House Ethics Committee.
Gingrich's ethics woes, concerns that he was a political albatross that dragged House Republicans to a disappointing performance in the 1998 elections, and fears that he was going soft on the Clinton White House were too much for some House GOP lawmakers.
A few of his lieutenants engineered a failed coup against Gingrich in late 1997. By the end of 1998, a battle-weary Gingrich had had enough. He quit as speaker and didn't seek re-election to Congress, saying of his Republican caucus, "I'm willing to lead, but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."
"Newt Gingrich is one of the most complicated public figures of our day," former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., wrote in her 1998 book "Representative Mom: Balancing Budgets, Bill and Baby in the U.S. Congress." "Incredibly smart and pragmatic, he is at his best when he is building a team. He is at his worst and most self-destructive when he swells with his own sense of invulnerability and moves to the front and center."
Molinari had a front-row seat to Gingrich's rise and fall. She was the House Republican conference's vice chair and the wife of former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., a member of Gingrich's inner circle who was among the leaders of the unsuccessful coup.
Her assessment may have been of the Old Newt circa 1990s, but some current Republicans believe that the 2011 edition is equally problematic.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who served with Gingrich in the House, suggested in May that the former speaker should "keep his mouth shut" after he dismissed House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare overhaul proposal as "right-wing social engineering."
"You know, he used to have a little deal in his office that said 'listen, learn, and lead,'" Coburn told ABC News in May. "And he rarely followed it. He went the other way. And instead of ready, aim, fire, you got fire, ready, aim."
However, some Gingrich watchers insist that he's a changed man, humbled by his mistakes, tempered by time, and mellowed by devotion to his wife, Callista, and his conversion to Catholicism.
He remains ever the caustic combatant eager to stick it to a Democratic, or Republican, challenger, but he's not the self-imploding leader he once was, they say.
"We all change over time," said former Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who chaired the House Ethics Committee that investigated Gingrich. "I think Newt has developed a lot over time. His weakness — his intensity, the way he managed the diversity of opinion he relied on — drained his energy and hurt his marriage. Newt has changed in regard to managing his responsibilities."
Newton Leroy McPherson was born June 17, 1943, in Harrisburg, Pa., the son of a teenage mother and a mechanic father. Their marriage ended in three days, after Newton McPherson, Gingrich's father, struck his wife, Kathleen, as she tried to wake him for work after a long night of drinking and shooting pool.
"We were married on a Saturday and I left him on a Tuesday," Kathleen "Kit" Gingrich told The New York Times in 1994. "I got Newtie in those three days."
Three years later, she married Robert Gingrich, an Army artillery officer who legally adopted young Newt, who took his stepfather's last name.
The relationship between the aloof, demanding and sometimes disapproving stepfather, who died in 1996, and the talkative, gregarious stepson was complex, his mother said in interviews over the years.
That didn't stymie Gingrich's ambition to grow up and do big things. He has said that he declared as early as high school his desire to be speaker of the House.
But he first had to get a job, and following in his stepfather's military footsteps wasn't an option.
"He had bad eyes; he had bad feet," Mel Steeley, a history professor at what was then called West Georgia College, told NPR last month. "And his dad liked the idea of him being a history professor. He thought that was good."
So Gingrich, who holds a bachelor's degree from Atlanta's Emory University and his master's and doctorate from Tulane University in New Orleans, settled in as a history professor at West Georgia College — now called the University of West Georgia — while still longing for elective office.
He ran for a House seat twice and lost. He finally won in 1978 by defeating a Democratic state senator named Virginia Shapard, who planned to commute to Washington and keep her family in Georgia. Gingrich's campaign slogan: "When elected, Newt will keep his family together."
Two years later, Gingrich's 18-year marriage to the Jacqueline Battley — his former high school teacher — ended in divorce. He married Marriane Ginther in 1981, but that union dissolved in 1999 in part because of Gingrich's extramarital affair with Callista Bisek, whom he married in 2000.
Callista Gingrich is a force in Gingrich's life, friends and associates say. She's an active partner in her husband's endeavors, from campaigning to his books and movie projects. He, in turn, actively promotes her works, which include a recently published children's book "Sweet Land of Liberty."
"They have a comfortable relationship personally and professionally," Walker said. "I think his marriage to Callista, the conversion to Catholicism, helped."
Gingrich's post-Congress life has been very lucrative. Able to command $60,000 per speech, he earned $2.5 million last year, according to his financial disclosure form. He created a universe of for-profit enterprises that include his consulting business, a historical-documentary production company, a communications firm and a literary agency. The collection of endeavors produced almost $100 million over the last 10 years, according to The Washington Post.
On the campaign trail, Gingrich appears to be the picture of domesticity with wife, children, grandchildren and extended family in tow.
"Robert is one of my two debate coaches," Gingrich recently told a crowd at South Carolina's Furman University, referring to his 10-year-old grandson, who was busily snapping pictures. "His sister, Maggie, who is having ballet lessons today, is the other. ... So when people say I do well in debates, you're seeing one of the people who's guided me to success so far."
Some former campaign aides complained that Callista Gingrich has too much sway over her husband, blaming her for him taking a luxury Mediterranean cruise right after entering the presidential race instead knocking on doors and shaking hands in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The vacation prompted several key campaign staffers to resign in June. Gingrich responded that some of the disgruntled staffers didn't understand that he's a different type of candidate who's running a different type of campaign.
"The idea of the campaign is that we would put tens of thousands of people in touch with the candidate through social media — through Twitter and Facebook," Walker said. "Some of the old (campaign) formulas don't have the same solvency as before."
Gingrich is keenly aware that he has enough baggage to potentially sink his candidacy, and he's making attempts to lighten the load. He added a section on his campaign website dedicated to addressing attacks against him.
It calls a decades-old story that Gingrich asked his first wife for a divorce while she was hospitalized for cancer a "vicious lie" and points to a piece written by conservative columnist Jackie Gingrich Cushman, his daughter, in which she calls the story false.
It defends Gingrich earning between $1.6 million to $1.8 million from Freddie Mac even as he was publicly blasting the mortgage giant that many conservatives hate and blame for the housing bubble, saying he never worked as a lobbyist.
Gingrich considers revisiting various controversies the price of doing business to win the Republican nomination and, eventually, the White House.
"When you go from also-ran to one of the two front-runners, you're inevitably going to get a huge amount of scrutiny," he told USA Today in November. "You have to. It's the presidency. It would be dereliction of duty not to."
(Steven Thomma of the Washington Bureau contributed.)