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Newt Gingrich goes to spouse school

Last week, Newt Gingrich sat in a classroom surrounded by 11 women and one other man, furiously jotting notes.

In the weeklong intensive, where classes ran from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with only a short cafeteria lunch break in between, the former House speaker and onetime presidential candidate received a crash course in a new role: invisible spouse.

When he moves to Rome with his wife, Callista Gingrich, to become husband of the ambassador to the Holy See, the ubiquitous Fox News talking head will have no official diplomatic role abroad, beyond being generally presentable and essentially not heard from.

It will be a challenge for an outspoken sometime-booster, sometime-critic of the Trump administration, who said he does not plan to terminate his contract with Fox News.

But like former President Bill Clinton during his wife’s two bids for the presidency, Gingrich will be taking on the secondary role of booster after a public life spent demanding the limelight. Aware that this new, less celebrated role will take some getting used to, Gingrich eagerly enrolled himself in what he referred to, excitedly, as “spouse school.”

The program, run by the State Department and hosted on the Arlington, Virginia, campus of the Foreign Service Institute, was started in the 1950s, when it was referred to simply as the “Wives Seminar.”

Over the years, a State Department official said, it “has evolved into a variety of training and orientation programs for foreign affairs family members.” Today, topics include: “expectations and personal goals for your time overseas,” “post morale,” “the official residence,” “navigating a public diplomacy role,” “legal issues and ethics” and “stress management.”

The course is “designed to provide participants practical information to make informed decisions for personal growth and public service in their new roles,” the State Department official said.

But the inchoate role of ambassador’s partner — nothing is actually required of them — hasn’t changed so much over the years. It’s still mostly about entertaining and keeping a low profile.

Gingrich — a fixture of Washington who famously campaigned for president on a platform, in part, of colonizing the moon — doesn’t exactly fit the prim mold for the job. But he said he’s eager to try something new.

In a series of back-to-back 75-minute lectures he described as “tiring,” Gingrich and the 12 other spouses of waiting-to-be-confirmed ambassadors were educated on some basic rules of the road. “You always have two fridges,” Gingrich marveled in an interview with POLITICO, “one for personal food, one for entertaining, so you’re not eating out of the taxpayer refrigerator. I didn’t know that.”

The group was instructed on ground rules for entertaining. “If you invite eight or 10 ambassadors over for dinner,” Gingrich said, “there’s protocol for who sits where. A protocol officer who helps you think through everything.”

These are the kinds of concerns that will now fall under Gingrich’s portfolio — a new gambit for the onetime author of the austere, government-shrinking “Contract for America,” who will now sit in one of the most cushy and cosseted government roles of all.

He is expecting to love it.

“I’ll be the person at the front door saying, ‘Hi, I’m Newt Gingrich. The ambassador will be down shortly,’” he laughed. “It’s a great new role. Callista supported me in ’12 when I ran for president; I get to support her now. And I get to join the spouse organization.”

President Donald Trump’s appointment of Callista Gingrich, a practicing Roman Catholic, to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See is unusual.

Callista is Gingrich’s third wife, whose six-year-long affair with the House speaker famously ended his second marriage and contributed to his political undoing. If she is confirmed by the Senate, Callista will be sent to represent the United States at the seat of the Catholic Church, which still does not offer Communion to people who are divorced or remarried.

Her appointment has also been widely criticized as the ultimate patronage post, a reward of a coveted overseas gig for the wife of one of Trump’s earliest supporters.

Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism for his wife, defended her bona fides for the job. “She’s born Catholic, has spent 21 years singing at the Basilica [of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception], including for three popes,” he said, while also pointing to a documentary she produced for Gingrich Productions, about Pope John Paul II returning to Poland in 1979.

But for now, Gingrich is more concerned about prepping for his own new frontier as the silent spouse. He said he is eagerly anticipating the monthly meetings he will have with the 81 other husbands and wives of ambassadors to the Vatican. “It’s a much bigger break for me to be in the spouse world than to be in the ambassador world,” he said.

In the past, the ambassador’s spouse has played a very traditional role. In her memoir, “Vera and the Ambassador,” Vera Blinken, wife of former Hungarian Ambassador Donald Blinken, listed her duties in 1994: “keep a handsome, orderly, home; entertain; and avoid potential criticism by being personally gracious, amiable, and at all times presentable.”

Thomas Schneider, whose wife, Cynthia, was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands in 1998, recalled at a conference the odd space he occupied abroad. “My reputation was that she was supposed to be married, but nobody ever saw me,” he said, speaking at a Council on Women’s Leadership. “She still has very good friends over there who have never met me. It was a very strange type of relationship. I attended events, but I was literally invisible.”

Gingrich said he’s happy to delve into a world of decorating the embassy and entertaining at the residence. “We learned about art,” Gingrich marveled. “They have an entire loan program for trying to keep the embassies with appropriate art representing the United States.”

As for furnishing the place, he noted, “you can bring your own furniture and store theirs, but you’re moving into a furnished facility. I think we’re going to use theirs, but that’s not a decision I would pretend to be the final arbiter on.”

Despite decades of practice parrying with the press, Gingrich still received media training last week at school — tips on how to not make news.

“I sat through a couple of hours on how to do interviews,” Gingrich said. “The first point they make over and over is, you are not the principal. I’m wearing my spouse hat. I’ve got to be very circumspect. We don’t want to confuse people about who speaks for the United States. Callista speaks for the United States. I just speak for Newt Gingrich.”

That, however, doesn’t mean an end to his political commentary on Fox News, he said. He just plans to steer clear of issues that relate to the Vatican.

Gingrich bristled at the comparison to Clinton stumping for his wife, arguing that in his case, Callista’s pending position is something outside of his realm of experience. “I won’t be competitive,” he said. “I just think there’s a certain fairness in having a couple where each of you tries to help the other achieve something really exciting.”

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