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Newt's Iowa Link: Callista's Unusual Alma Mater

Newt Gingrich may be coming late to the organizing game in Iowa, but it’s worth noting that he does have a Hawkeye State connection that I haven’t seen mentioned much: Callista, his third wife, is a graduate of Luther College in Decorah, in the hilly northeastern corner of the state. Gingrich (nee Bisek) attended the college after growing up Catholic in Wisconsin; after graduating in 1988 with a B.A. in music, she found her way to Washington to work on the Hill, where she met Gingrich. Since 2005, the Gingrich Foundation has been funding a Gingrich Scholarship at the 2,500-student college for music majors studying piano, organ or wind instruments. And in July, the couple dropped by Decorah, where, according to Callista’s own report of the day, “I attended a band rehearsal with Luther College alumni. It was great to reunite with so many people and play French horn in the Center for Faith and Life at Luther once again. That morning, Newt had the opportunity to visit with many enthusiastic people at a pancake breakfast sponsored by the Volunteer Fire Department at the Decorah Fire Station.”

Now, I know what you might be thinking: a school called Luther College in small-town Iowa, the alma mater of Mrs. Newt Gingrich…this must be a pretty conservative place. Well, you would be wrong. As I discovered when I visited during the 2008 campaign, Decorah and Luther College are veritably hippy-dippy by the standards of middle America. Decorah itself is a lovely town whose thriving Main Street, with its hipster coffee shops and natural-foods grocery, might be mistaken as being somewhere in western Massachusetts. And Luther, while affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is far closer in spirit to Oberlin than to Bob Jones. One clue: Its Web site plays up its “sustainability” regime, which includes a “personal composting program,” “free winter bike storage” and an “energy conservation pledge.” There was a strong Obama chapter on campus for the Iowa caucuses in 2007 and the candidate drew a big crowd in Decorah during a visit in the fall of 2007.

To learn more, I turned to a friend who graduated from Luther four years after Callista. He tells me that Luther “when I attended, was a pretty pluralistic universe. There were College Republicans and very liberal College Democrats. There were some conservatives but also many open-minded, progressive, liberal students. It was a lively, very pluralistic campus then, and I assume it is now.

“Of course, the Lutheran tradition played a role, but it was not central to the Luther experience. In the Center for Life and Faith we listened to a wide range of amazing artists and intellectuals from around the globe. There was also vibrant social and political activism alongside a free and rigorous academic spirit and pursuit, and faculty and students who have been eager to engage with pressing issues facing America and the world, including social justice issues, racism, minority rights, and global inequality.

"The entire campus climate was tolerant, predominantly liberal, and had a distinctly cosmopolitan outlook, even though it is located in the rolling hills of Winneshiek County, in the midst of America’s allegedly conservative and remote heartland. Luther offered an atmosphere that engenders lively academic debate, and an intellectual cosmos thoroughly respectful towards dissenting points of view, including dissent from either side of the political spectrum--something that I experienced as uniquely American, even though in political discourse this kind of respect has been under pressure since the days of Lee Atwater. Some students created a 'camp for social justice' on central campus, and Luther always rather encouraged social consciousness among the student body.

"Needless to say, Luther was also the most diverse place in the entire region of Northeast Iowa. In 99% WASP Iowa at the time, Luther stood out with its many minority students and international students. Luther probably would have been among the few places where Obama could have won a presidential race in the 1990s already."

Now, granted, the alumnae in question went on to work as a Republican staffer on the Hill, become the third wife of the former Speaker of the House (under clouded circumstances) and develop a taste for fine jewelry and what fashion critic Robin Givhan this week labeled a "prissy style problem." Still, her collegiate background suggests a somewhat more complex picture than one might expect. And it suggests that Newt might have a small edge in northeastern Iowa – to the extent that he is willing to emphasize a spouse whom the opposition is, ever so subtly, seeking to use against him.