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Gingrich's wife at center of presidential campaign turmoil, sources say

New details, including concerns over his third wife, Callista, have emerged about why Newt Gingrich's entire senior campaign staff walked out on the presidential hopeful. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.

 

Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign was crippled by behind-the-scenes blow-ups over the role of his wife, Callista, including her insistence that the campaign arrange for screenings of the couple’s movies made by their for-profit production company, according to current and former campaign staffers and advisers. 

The use of campaign resources to promote the Gingriches' private movie ventures made some senior staffers uncomfortable and led to repeated confrontations over the issue, they said. The campaign even carved out space on the home page of the Gingrich campaign Web site, Newt.org, where a section dubbed “Callista’s Canvas” promoted the movies, with titles such as “Rediscovering God in America” and “A City Upon a Hill,” about American “exceptionalism.”

Four current and former advisers provided new details to NBC News about the internal conflicts that last week prompted 16 top staffers — including his campaign manager, Rob Johnson, and his longtime spokesman, Rick Tyler — to resign. The mass resignations have undermined Gingrich’s efforts to raise money — he has barely collected $3 million, according to two sources — and left his struggling campaign on life support, the current and former advisers said.


 During Gingrich’s campaign trips, Callista Gingrich repeatedly insisted that the campaign carve out time for public screenings of their movies, where the couple answered questions from the audience, and then sold DVD copies, eating up hours of time on the candidate’s schedule, the campaign sources said. When Callista Gingrich sent out an email insisting that a movie screening be arranged in New Hampshire, the candidate’s senior staffer in the state, David Carney, fired off an angry reply, saying he would refuse to do so, sources said. Carney declined to comment.

In another case, sources said, staffers in South Carolina also refused to arrange a movie screening. This prompted Callista Gingrich to insist that she and her husband fly back from the state on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend — and miss a planned campaign event in Myrtle Beach —so the couple could attend the opera “Don Pasquale” at the Kennedy Center that night, the sources said.

Mike Stewart / AP file

Callista Gingrich on March 3, 2011.

The dispute over the movies wasn’t the only source of conflict within the campaign. Campaign sources say the candidate’s top aides also were upset over Callista Gingrich’s control over the campaign schedule, including her refusal to allow early-morning departures for campaign events because she insisted she needed time to have her hair done, the campaign sources said. 

The conflicts climaxed over the couple’s decision to fly off for a week-and-a-half cruise of the Greek islands in early June. Top staffers pleaded with Gingrich not to go, saying – according to one former senior aide – that the vacation was “incompatible” with running a presidential campaign that was still trying to get off the ground.  Gingrich later defended the holiday as a chance to “get away and think.”

Read more reporting by Michael Isikoff in 'The Isikoff Files'

“Newt was in a box,” said one adviser close to Gingrich. “He wanted to campaign but on the other hand he had to keep his wife happy.  This was all about pacifying Callista.”

 “Any husband that tells you his wife doesn’t play some role in his schedule is probably lying to himself,” said Joe DeSantis, Gingrich’s current campaign spokesman, when asked about the conflicts between the campaign staffers and Callista Gingrich. “Of course they make decisions together about their schedule. It’s their life.”

Slideshow: Newt Gingrich's career in photos

DeSantis said the complaints about Callista Gingrich were in a “long tradition of former consultants blaming the wife or the spouse for their frustrations. The fact is, this is Newt’s campaign and he is going to run it the way he thinks is best for America.”

DeSantis also defended the use of campaign resources, including the campaign Web site, to promote the movies by Gingrich Productions. He noted that a Federal Elections Commission advisory opinion requested by Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott Brown permitted a similar use of his campaign Web site to promote one of his books. DeSantis said the Gingriches’ movies were part of the extended “conversation” that Gingrich wants to have with voters and shows his determination to run a different kind of presidential campaign.

In an interview with Fox News Tuesday night, Gingrich said he felt “liberated” by the resignations of his campaign staff and that the shakeup would allow him to run the kind of campaign he wants. 

"My vision is of a people-oriented grassroots campaign where newt.org becomes the center of new solutions, new ideas, new energy -- a campaign that's inclusive, that brings together everybody in America of every ethnic background who wants to change Washington," he said. "And I think that that was so different from the normal Republican model, that there just wasn't a fit."

Still, the intermingling of campaign resources and private moneymaking ventures – while not completely unique for political candidates — may have created particular issues for Gingrich. In years past, he has been repeatedly accused of using non-profit groups for political or personal gain. Such accusations led to a House Ethics Committee reprimand in 1997 when Gingrich was speaker of the House. 

This week, ABC News reported that a nonprofit charity that Gingrich set up, Renewing American Leadership (ReAL), paid more than $220,000 to another one of Gingrich’s companies, Gingrich Communications. DeSantis said that “ReAL and Gingrich Communications took great care to make sure all resources were being used legally and ethically.”

Most of the payments, he said, compensated the time of ReAL’s part-time executive director, Rick Tyler, who was an employee of Gingrich Communications, and the rest was to purchase Gingrich’s books, which the charity used for its fundraising efforts.