Callista Gingrich, Washington's new face at Vatican

Ivan Couronne
Callista Gingrich, wife of former House speaker and Republican US presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, is the next US ambassador to the Vatican

The next US ambassador to the Vatican is no veteran diplomat: Callista Gingrich is the third wife of Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the 1990s Republican revolution who has reaped rewards for backing Donald Trump.

The US Senate confirmed her late Monday on a 70-23 vote, five months after she was nominated by the president.

Several Democrats joined all Republicans in supporting Gingrich, but her opposition was relatively high for an ambassadorial nominee: only the deeply controversial David Friedman, Trump's ambassador to Israel, received more "no" votes this year.

"It's a very strange appointment," Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, told AFP.

"It's hard to imagine anything in Callista Gingrich's resume that shows she could be good at that" position at the Vatican.

Traditionally about one third of envoys are political appointees, especially people who were major donors to a president's campaign.

But at the Vatican, the 51-year-old Gingrich succeeds a former president of humanitarian group Catholic Relief Services, who himself succeeded a professor of theology.

Gingrich has published seven children's books featuring Ellis the Elephant, who navigates his way through different periods in American history.

She and her husband run Gingrich Productions, a multimedia company which has produced several documentaries, including one on Pope John Paul II.

During her July confirmation hearing, Senator Johnny Isakson highlighted her role as a choir member at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

She is "a lady of great talent," Isakson said, someone who could "not only convince Newt to marry her, but convert him to Catholicism, which will serve them well in the Holy See."

- Out of wedlock -

Gingrich's husband Newt, now 74, was the architect of the remarkable Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 during Bill Clinton's presidency, thanks to an ultra-partisan strategy whose effects reverberated for decades.

After his fall in 1998, Newt Gingrich remained ever-present within the party, seeking the presidential nomination in 2012 and 2016 before backing Trump and proposing, in vain, himself as vice president.

The Gingrich couple's story is not without controversy.

Callista Biseck had been a congressional aide in 1993 when she began a romantic relationship with Newt Gingrich, who was married at the time. Their affair lasted six years, until Gingrich divorced his second wife and married Callista.

The illicit romance was occurring just as Gingrich himself pressed for the impeachment of Bill Clinton over his sexual encounters with intern Monica Lewinsky.

While Newt's career rose, Callista's never reached the same professional pinnacles.

"Callista doesn't have what Newt does. Newt can pick up the phone and get to the president," columnist Winters said.

Still, envoys play a less crucial role today than in 1984, when Ronald Reagan and the Vatican re-established diplomatic relations.

In 2017, Trump's priorities -- on refugees, climate, poverty -- seem diametrically opposed to those of Pope Francis.

But Democrats declined to mount fierce opposition to his Vatican ambassador.

"They've got bigger fish to fry," Winters said.