Newt Gingrich's affair with his future third wife Callista Bisek, at the time an aide in the office of Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson, was in full bloom on the eve of the Republican Revolution that propelled Gingrich to become House Speaker, in 1994.
"It was fairly common knowledge on the Hill," a former colleague of Callista's in Gunderson's office tells Rolling Stone. "Certainly in Republican circles it was widely known about."
The former colleague's comments shed new light on the out-in-the-open nature of the Gingrich affair — years before Gingrich would petition his second wife for an "open marriage" in 1999.
Callista, whom the former colleague remembers as a "small-town girl from Wisconsin" would discuss her relationship with Gingrich at the office. "She was not veiled about it," he says. Without explicitly saying, "Yes I'm having an affair with Newt," Callista would say things like, "Obviously you're aware of the relationship I have," the ex-staffer recalls.
Callista's boss, Rep. Gunderson was also keenly aware of that relationship. "Gunderson was a Rockefeller Republican — very moderate in his viewpoints — a fiscal Republican while being against the GOP's social agenda," the former deputy recalls. "But nonetheless he'd risen to the leadership of the Republican Party"; Gunderson was installed as Gingrich's chief deputy whip for strategy in 1989.
This was particularly unusual because Gunderson is a gay Republican. He was famously outted on the House floor by a GOP colleague during the March 1994 debate over the Defense of Marriage Act. But Gingrich had known of his deputy's sexual orientation since at least 1991.
"He had this unique intellectual relationship with Newt," the deputy recalls. "Steve had a certain resonance and friendship with Newt. But deputy whip was a very unusual position for a guy like Steve. He wasn't Tom DeLay." (Gunderson quietly stepped down from the leadership post in June 1993, denouncing the GOP platform as having been "kidnapped by the hard right.")
On the eve of the 1994 elections, Gunderson's friendship with Gingrich afforded the future speaker the Wisconsin congressman's ultimate discretion. "Gunderson didn't condone this relationship between Callista and Newt," says the former deputy, "but as a gay man — particularly a previously closeted gay man — he was respectful of people's private lives. And he was very explicit in conversations with me to that effect." (As BuzzFeed reports today, Gingrich would later use the full weight of his office in an effort to help Gunderson protect his House seat in 1996.)
Oddly, Gingrich and Bisek benefitted from something akin to omerta across the Hill. "She openly carried on this affair with Newt," the colleague says, shaking his head. "I wouldn't say they were flamboyant about it, but they weren't veiled about it either. I would see them having lunch in some of the Capitol cafeterias, or restaurants about town."
By the time the Lewinsky/impeachment saga rolled around, says the former staffer, "It was everything I could do to restrain myself for putting in for Larry Flynt's reward for any salacious stories about Republicans. It was the obvious one."
"It's still shocking to me that I didn't put in for the money — and that nobody else did either," the ex-staffer says. "I'm not sure how that got suppressed."