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In any case, Gingrich's ambitions never stopped at the classroom. "You've got to go from teaching to implementing. I'm one of the implementers," he contends. The son of an Army officer, Gingrich had his eye on elective office even before he had finished work on his Ph.D. in history at Tulane University. After unsuccessful tries for a House seat in 1974 and '76, he entered Congress with the class of 1978 and had soon founded the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of right-wing Young Turks. In 1981 his 19-year marriage to his high school math teacher Jacqueline Battley (whom he married a year after graduation, having sought her out at Emory University, where she had gone to teach) broke up in painful circumstances. She was in the hospital recovering from cancer when he came to discuss the divorce terms. Remarried now to Marianne Ginther, he remains close to his two daughters from his earlier marriage.
Once in Congress, Gingrich excelled at turning ordinary exchanges into blood feuds. When he tore into Democrats who had sent a letter to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, Speaker Tip O'Neill described Gingrich's remarks as "the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress." Gingrich gained his reputation as a giant killer in 1987, when he brought the ethics charges against Speaker Jim Wright that led to Wright's resignation two years later. That positioned Gingrich for his successful 1989 run for minority whip, despite the fact that the House Republican leadership supported the more moderate Edward Madigan of Illinois.
More interested in plotting revolution than passing bills, Gingrich has never made much of a mark as a legislator. He was sufficiently indifferent to the need for stroking his constituents that in the 1990 election he held on to his seat by just 974 votes. Two years later he came close to losing the Republican primary against a challenger who went after him for bouncing 22 checks at the House bank. Redistricting has given him a more secure base and a solid lead in the polls this year, freeing Gingrich to travel on behalf of other candidates. His Democratic opponent, former Representative Ben Jones, has been reduced to showing up with bloodhounds at Gingrich rallies in other districts to dramatize how hard the man is to confront back home.
What Gingrich remains famous for is a willingness to play a much rougher political game than the one practiced by House minority leaders like the newly retired Bob Michel of Illinois, whom Gingrich has the votes to succeed if the G.O.P. remains a minority in that chamber. As his power has grown, he has even been willing to go after fellow Republicans when they weren't sufficiently radical, once calling Bob Dole "the tax collector of the welfare state." Gingrich insists now that he will have no trouble working with Dole, though he manages to do it in a way that delivers another dig. "He's learning," Gingrich says. "He's maturing." Dole answers with the patience of a man who has dealt with pugnacious pups before. "Newt's got a lot of ideas," he says dryly. "Maybe three or four for every one of mine."