The other Gingrich

March 08, 1995|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON — THE IMAGE of Newt Gingrich is that of a snarling right-winger who would throw welfare mommas on the street, lock poor kids in orphanages and fire Big Bird.

That's the stereotyped Newt -- a combination Darth Vader, Scrooge and Fred Flintstone. The picture may be about right, too.

But something strange happened that, if the House speaker isn't careful, could ruin his image as Newt the Destroyer.

The Other Gingrich came to town. This Gingrich weighs a slim 110, sports a short page-boy cut, and is a lesbian. The only trait Candace Gingrich, 28, shares with her half-bother is a gift of gab. She came from Harrisburg, Pa., with a gay-rights group to lobby for federal money for AIDS research.

Not an item you'd find in Newt's Contract with America gospel.

And Candace Gingrich answered firmly when asked if she'd ever vote for her brother: "It's not a family thing, it's not personal," she said. "We're completely in disagreement on 90 percent of the issues. No, I wouldn't vote for him."

How did Newt react when his lesbian sister showed up in the Capitol trailed by a mob of TV crews? Did Newt duck a confrontation?

Nope, Newt publicly met her with obvious warmth and affection that would make his party's homophobes wince.

"We're an American family with all the complexity," said Mr. Gingrich, sitting by his sister on a sunlit porch overlooking Washington monuments. "She's a liberal Democrat, I'm not. I don't mix relationships with politics. I have a younger sister I love a lot. Period."

True, Newt Gingrich isn't the first politician cast into the national glare with a sibling who was different. He's luckier than most.

Jimmy Carter had brother Billy, who chug-a-lugged beer in his pickup. Lyndon Johnson's brother Sam had to be trailed by Secret Service agents when on a bourbon binge. Bill Clinton's rock-singing half-brother Roger is an ex-con coke user.

Candy Gingrich, though, is a sprightly woman who plays rugby, works as a computer technician and parcel sorter, and has been openly gay since she was 20.

Her mother Kathleen -- not in a whispered aside to Connie Chung -- has said, "I wish Candy were more, well, natural." But Candace says her brother sent word to her: " 'It's your life to live as you want' . . . That empowered me."

In truth, Newt's attitude toward gays doesn't jibe with his heart-of-stone persona. In the past, Newt Gingrich has said, "I believe in toleration, not promotion. I don't want police in the men's room. But I don't want kindergartners to be taught homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle."

Dr. Gingrich once intoned, "Homosexuality is an orientation like alcoholism." But he's long advocated AIDS funding. Some think Newt Gingrich has been impressed by his friendship with openly gay Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis.

Or maybe having a lesbian sister puts him at odds with the Christian right's zealotry.

Newt's the dynamo of the party, though, with such anti-gay thrashers as Gary Bauer, the Rev. Louis Shelton and Pat Buchanan.

Gingrich shrugged, "We're all sinners. Watch it, Newt, they'll tear up your credentials as Chief Troglodyte.

Her mother gave her some advice before the Washington excursion: Don't dump on your brother. But Newt's breezy openness toward gays wasn't enough for Candace Gingrich.

"Tolerance isn't enough," she said. "We have no federal protections. We can be fired merely for being gay. That's discrimination."

Ironically, if her brother hadn't been devastatingly successful in the November revolt, Candace wouldn't have been lobbying Republicans. The gay vote, as in Bill Clinton's '92 win, was considered a Democratic bloc. Now Newt & Co. control the Hill. So Ms. Gingrich hustled her home-state Republicans, Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. George Gekas, for help.

Why hasn't Candace Gingrich lobbied the speaker in private?

"Oh, he hears enough politics," she said. "We talk about other things -- like how awful the Redskins are."

Sounds like a normal American family where Big Brother is America's firebrand right-winger and Sis is a Democratic, vegetarian lesbian.

Yep, Candy Gingrich did a terrible thing for Newt's image as a cybernetic, slash-and-burn blowhard. She made him seem human.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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