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Falling from Grace

Friday, June 1, 2012

Timothy S. Goeglein. The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era. B&H Books. 272 Pages. $19.99.

The man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era is not your typical memoir of the Bush years, nor of any White House. To be sure, readers looking for noteworthy details and insights into the Bush presidency from both a policy and historical perspective will get just that. They will not be disappointed. But they should first brace themselves for a gripping personal story of one man’s fall and redemption. And whether you are a person of faith or not, or the coldest policy wonk, you are certain to be drawn in from the opening pages of Tim Goeglein’s autobiographical account.

The story begins vividly with Goeglein, for seven years George W. Bush’s deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, dropping to his knees, trembling in his office in the building next to the White House. He had just gotten an e-mail from an old journalist friend.

“I opened the e-mail, read it once, felt the blood drain from my head, got down on my knees next to my desk, and was overcome with a fear and trepidation as never before,” writes Goeglein. “My only prayer, which I repeated again and again, was ‘God help me. God help me.’”

Goeglein knew immediately it would be the worst day of his life, with a trial he had never faced, a cross perhaps too heavy to bear. The journalist asked Goeglein if he had plagiarized part of a recent column he had written for his hometown newspaper. Was it true?

Goeglein, who strived to live his life as a man of character and integrity — literally writing and lecturing on virtue — answered honestly. It was indeed true. And it was worse than she knew, as she and the whole world would soon learn.

Goeglein writes: “When I sent that e-mail reply, acknowledging what I had done, in all my guilt and shame, I knew events of that day would move rapidly toward my resignation from the White House and service to a president I loved and respected.” He continues: “Every one of the principles I held and espoused, every one of the values I was raised by — truth in all things, character above intellect, unquestioned integrity before God and man alike — every mentor who ever invested part of his or her life in me, I had violated and violated completely. My hypocrisy was transparent, and I was guilty as charged. What a prideful fool I was, and it was all my fault without excuse or exception.”

Pride cometh before the fall, and now Tim Goeglein fell hard.

Immediately, his resignation followed, as did the scandalous front pages, the ridicule, the embarrassment, the political damage to the Bush White House, the ordeal of facing friends and family. Having been taken by pride and the temptation of the dark side, Goeglein allowed himself one solace: He vowed to never again darken the doorstep of the West Wing.

Ah, but he would have no choice: A few days later, after a weekend from hell, Goeglein got a call from George W. Bush’s chief of staff. The president wanted to talk to him.

Goeglein steadied himself for a well-deserved trip to the woodshed. Here would be a fitting final punishment, a deserving dénouement to this sordid episode, a justly lasting, ugly memory to soil his seven years of otherwise solid service. George Bush would surely tell him that he had been a grave disappointment.

Tim Goeglein walked alone toward the open Oval Office door. He heard the president’s voice: “Timmy, is that you? Please come in.”

It was just Goeglein and Bush, no one else. Goeglein quickly tried to say the first words, “Mr. President, I owe you a . . . .”

Bush stopped him: “Tim, I want you to know I forgive you.”

“But Mr. President,” interjected Goeglein, “I owe you . . . .”

“Tim,” Bush interrupted, “I have known mercy and grace in my own life, and I am offering it to you now. You are forgiven.”

Goeglein persisted: “But Mr. President, you should have taken me by the lapels and tossed me into Pennsylvania Avenue. I embarrassed you and the team; I am so sorry.”

George W. Bush wasn’t much interested. He finished: “Tim, you are forgiven, and mercy is real. Now we can talk about this, or we can spend some time together talking about the last seven years.”

The president escorted Goeglein over to the two couches in the Oval Office. “No, sit here,” he told Goeglein, gesturing to the chair of honor in front of the fireplace, reserved for distinguished guests. They talked about their families.

Here, of course, was an incredibly busy man, into the final stretch of his presidency, overwhelmed with so many domestic and international issues, absorbing so many arrows and indignities, and, yet, he gave this staffer his heart and time.

The meeting came to an end. As the president escorted Tim Goeglein to the door, Goeglein was certain he would never see him again — a bittersweet moment, and Goeglein choked up. But then George Bush offered yet something more: “Tim,” he said, “I would like you to bring Jenny and your two sons here to the Oval Office so I can tell them what a great husband and father you are.”

Goeglein was stunned. Two days later, he heard from the White House scheduler. That meeting, too, took place — and was likewise unforgettable.

To learn more, one must read Goeglein’s book. And for such reasons alone, the book is worth the time and price. In fact, if for nothing more than a glimpse into this thoroughly and honestly human portrait of George W. Bush, this book is worth it. No matter what the left’s demonization, George W. Bush was a decent man, and this book is a testimony to that.

As I researched George W. Bush for my own book on him a few years ago, I found a speech he gave back in Texas in December 1999. He talked then about how one behaves when no one else is watching. Character is what happens when no one else is watching. Here, in this moment with Tim Goeglein, no one else was watching, and character is what happened. We know it only through Goeglein’s words.

But we can also gain much more on George W. Bush from Goeglein’s memoir. There is plenty of material to both feed the inner wonk and add to the historical record on the Bush years.

Goeglein’s perspective contains four core elements of keen interest. First, there are the policy aspects of the book, which tend to gravitate around areas that Goeglein specialized in via his outreach to faith-based groups. These range from the president’s crucial early decision on embryonic stem-cell research, which came shortly before September 11, to matters like gay marriage, the family, and Supreme Court picks, among others. Second, Goeglein offers an accounting of the two elections that narrowly got Bush into the White House, including a chapter on the Florida recount — and the “values voters” critical to Bush’s electoral success. Third, this book contains something of a manifesto on conservatism, badly needed as conservatives seek to support a Republican presidential candidate in 2012. Goeglein’s understanding of conservatism is a thread that runs naturally from chapter to chapter. He effortlessly synthesizes the thinking of great conservative minds from Russell Kirk to Edmund Burke, from Newman to Chesterton, from Whittaker Chambers to Richard Weaver to Evelyn Waugh, from Tocqueville to T. S. Eliot. His synthesis is grounded in the American Founders, their principles, and a careful appreciation of the interrelationship between faith and freedom. Goeglein also readably integrates the intriguing personal relationships he forged with conservative founders like William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk toward the end of their lives. Really, Goeglein’s insights into conservatism provide a compelling cohesion to his narrative, one that teaches the reader a philosophy for politics and life. His own story and experiences (and struggles) are vindication of the ordered liberty that Kirk advised for all Americans and their country.

Finally, Goeglein gives valuable insights into George W. Bush’s war decisions, from Afghanistan to Iraq.

When you think about it, it is astonishing that this former governor of Texas, who had hoped to shape a presidency around a largely domestic agenda rooted in what he called “compassionate conservatism,” found himself thrust into foreign policy amid some of the darkest days in the history of the republic. That happened, of course, on September 11, 2001, as he was reading a book to students in a Florida public school. September 11, Bush often said, “changed everything.”

Goeglein presents this episode much in the same way that it presented itself in the life of George W. Bush. Following a chapter on “faith and compassion,” Goeglein abruptly talks about driving to work in Washington the morning of September 11 under the clearest of blue skies, “the most beautiful day of the year.” He, too, like the president, began his day routinely. But then lightning struck. Goeglein likewise tried to rapidly assemble and piece together what was happening. Like his president, he was thunderstruck.

Given his faith-based role, Goeglein was the man who organized the inspiring National Cathedral service shortly after the attacks, which included Billy Graham, the Clintons, the Gores, and all of official Washington. He secured the participation of a frail Graham, but had to figure out how to get him to town. He worked with the frazzled, under-the-gun faa to literally clear the skies for the elderly church statesman to fly in. The combination of Graham’s sermon and Bush’s speech, wrote Goeglein, in a Russell Kirk-like thought, had seemed to put “Jerusalem and Athens . . . in perfect equipoise that morning.”

Not quite so balanced, however, was the world that now unraveled outside the walls. Goeglein writes of the immediate sense among the president’s staff of how much things had changed in the ten months since his inaugural. It was truly a new world, instantly transformed from relative peace and prosperity in January to the “near-constant stories of horror” now streaming in to the White House. “The president’s daily schedule was now driven almost exclusively by 9–11,” writes Goeglein, even as “domestic concerns continued on one track.”

Over the next two years, and especially an intense period from late 2001 to early 2003, the White House grappled with interpreting the new world and its challenges and, most acutely, how to respond and make its case. The clash of civilizations was intensifying, terms like jihad were now part of everyday vernacular, and the president’s team wondered how much of its response would be — or would appear to be — “jaw-jaw” (meaning diplomacy) or “war-war.”

Of course, “war-war” meant going first into Afghanistan and then Iraq.

If 9/11 had changed George W. Bush’s presidency, the decision to go to war in Iraq changed him physically. Goeglein recalls the president’s Oval Office announcement on March 19, 2003: “As he declared the United States would invade Iraq, everyone who worked for him saw instantly the gravity of his tone and mien physically transform his appearance; both his face and his body language visibly changed.”

Bush, notes Goeglein, was a “reluctant war president.” Nonetheless, this was “George W. Bush’s hour for choosing.”

Goeglein does not brush aside the downturns, from the absence of wmd stockpiles to the U.S. death toll prior to the surge, but he wants history to appreciate Bush’s leadership qualities in the face of not only very difficult decisions but extraordinarily harsh and unrelenting criticism. He saw in Bush the traits of a great leader: “resoluteness and steadfastness instead of indecision; independence of analysis and thought; prudence instead of reaction; and what the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke called ‘moral imagination’; which is the ability to see your way forward informed by an ethical view not tarnished by political considerations.”

We can certainly disagree with Bush’s individual choices within the war and even the overall decision to go to war, but when it comes to Bush’s singular focus and leadership, it is difficult to disagree with anything Goeglein says. Bush was extraordinarily decisive and resolute and, yes, apolitical.

As to the latter, the worst assessment of Bush’s thinking during the entire war period remains Ted Kennedy’s utterly absurd statement in 2003, when the Massachusetts senator claimed that Bush pursued war in Iraq for political purposes: “This was made up in Texas,” growled Kennedy, “announced . . . to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically.” In fact, at the moment Bush decided to pursue a highly risky path to war, he was still surfing an unprecedented wave of popularity. Political scientists speak of the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon — a boost that presidents receive during national tragedy. Typically, this lift lasts a few weeks. Yet, Bush’s post-September 11 jump lasted over a year — the longest rally-round-the-flag peak ever recorded. And he gave it up to go to war. He sacrificed political fortune for what he thought was right. He never regained that post-September 11 upsurge. Moreover, if body bags piled up, he could easily have been a one-term president.

Kennedy’s statement was not only mean and unfair but irrational and just plain dumb — and sadly all too common among the president’s wild detractors.

For his part, George W. Bush did not respond to this kind of nonsensical, outrageous criticism, even when many wanted him to. That, too, was part of Bush’s unique leadership. On that, Goeglein explains: “Even when his opponents were at their bitterest, he refused to lower himself to their level. The most constant refrain I heard from the president’s supporters is that he needed to hit back, to get in the proverbial sandbox and throw some verbal punches.”

Harry Reid said “this war is lost.” It was a criticism utterly mild compared to the “stunning demagoguery” that Goeglein and the White House staff gauged daily and even “hourly”: Bush was a “fascist,” an American “Hitler”;  the prison at Gitmo was like a Soviet gulag; Bush lied, kids died. On and on and on.

The nature of Goeglein’s job, which was to reach out to the president’s core conservative and faith-based constituency, and share with them the president’s “war narrative,” was such that he dealt with war criticisms incessantly. He knew what the president’s critics and supporters alike were thinking. He knew the supporters wanted the faith-based president to, in essence, quit turning the other cheek — to the point where Bush often seemed a doormat for his detractors. The president’s advocates were tired of watching him curl up into the fetal position as his tormentors kicked away. They wanted him to kick back, or at least respond effectively.

Bush did not do that. I still wish he would have.

Nonetheless, even then, as Goeglein observes, Bush “was not given to despair or desolation,” even in the most desperate, dispiriting days of the occupation of Iraq. Why was that? Goeglein answers that question as well:

I came to see — because he talked about it frequently — that the president believed this war was between good and evil, between liberty on one hand and tyranny on the other. He often framed his arguments in terms of justice to the consternation of his critics. . . . The president believed in good and evil, in right and wrong, and was comfortable putting things in that perspective. There was no “values-free” foreign or domestic policy in the Bush White House and he saw the war in those terms. The enemies of freedom were evil, and the defenders of liberty were good.

Bush withstood the “smears” on his personal reputation and character. As Goeglein notes, Bush remained comfortable in his own skin and did not need nor seek “validation from others.” Goeglein is right: Among the political class, that lack of a need for validation alone “makes [Bush] unique.”

So much for the critics. But how will history remember the president’s performance?

Goeglein is confident that Bush “will be confirmed in his major decisions by history, even though I heard him say on multiple occasions he did not give much thought to his legacy.”

Will that confirmation occur? Time will tell. And if it does, Bush, as he himself has indeed said, may not live to see the results. The legacy may be one he never witnesses in this lifetime.

Tim goeglein’s memoir is about much more than George W. Bush and 9/11 and wars in the Middle East. It is somewhat of a disservice here to focus mostly on those elements, although such will be the chief historical contributions of this book.

But they are far from the only contributions. A major bonus to this memoir is Goeglein’s informed understanding of the conservative movement and what it means to be a conservative. Beyond that still, and at a deeper level, this is a stirring tale of a considerable fall from grace. That fall began its path of redemption through the human grace of a gracious president that Tim Goeglein both served and, in a bad lapse of judgment, also disserved. The human grace of Bush, rooted in faith, tapped into a divine grace that began the process of healing for Goeglein. Bush himself knew that grace from his own personal weaknesses. He knew how and where to access it.

Tim Goeglein’s White House account has a redeeming element not found in the vast majority of conventional White House memoirs. We learn much about the autobiographical subject but also, mostly uniquely, learn something even better about the presidential subject at the heart of the story.