Timothy S. Goeglein is currently Vice President of External Relations at Focus on the Family and a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington. Before that he served in the White House of President George W. Bush as a Special Assistant to the President and the Deputy Director of the Office of Public Liaison. His new book, The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, describes his life at the White House, his departure amid scandal, and the lessons of grace and forgiveness he learned.
Tim, thanks for speaking with the Bookman. First, tell us a bit about the Office of Public Liaison and your role there.
The Office of Public Liaison, or OPL as it is called, is one of the four political offices at the White House. It is the main “outreach” office for the President, and a very retail operation in that our job was to convey the Bush agenda, but also to convey what all the outside groups felt about a host of issues, to make sure we faithfully placed that into the White House bloodstream. I was the person responsible for being the chief outreach person for the President to my fellow conservatives, Christians, the whole of the faith-based community, veterans, cultural groups, and so on. I was one of Karl Rove’s deputies. He coined the phrase “the man in the middle” to describe my White House role, and I think it was apt and that was why I selected it as the title for the book. Above all, it was my vocation and a labor of love. I love people; I love politics; I love policy; and I love the junction where they all meet. As a Christian in public life, I came to see, in those years, that it was a job worth doing excellently.
What caused you to write the book?
In a word, redemption. A very dear friend of mine, a fellow believer, had been a senior person in a major publishing house for many years, and was later a White House colleague. After the Bush administration had come to its close,she came to me. She said I had had a remarkable catbird seat for those eight years, especially regarding the juncture of faith and politics in the George W. Bush era, and that I should write about it. But I resisted until I came to see two things.
First, there is a whole genre of books written by non-senior aides like me that are actually quite remarkable books; there is a lot to learn from them because, often, the senior-most aides do not see a lot of things. They are too close to power. So I wanted to tell what I saw first-hand, and to explain those years.
But secondly, I wanted to share my personal story of redemption at the hands of the most powerful man in the world, George W. Bush. He is a man of grace, integrity, character, and integrity. Regardless of how people felt about his policies, he is a man of endless timber and has a spine of steel who made decisions rooted in principle.
I know a lot of my fellow conservatives disagree with the President in a host of ways; I acknowledge that in the book. But I also wanted to share an important story of grace and to marry that story to remarkable and historically important conservative achievements. George W. Bush was the most pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-religious liberty President of the contemporary era. And he made outstanding choices, as a result, for the Supreme Court, the federal and district courts, on stem cell research, and more. It is all tied to his faith. That is foundational in his life.
Your book opens with a powerful chapter describing the plagiarism scandal that caused your departure from the White House, but more importantly, the support, prayers, and forgiveness you found among friends, colleagues, and the President himself. What lessons did you draw from that outpouring of support?
The most important lesson I learned is that grace and mercy are real; that when you are gripping the cross of Christ, and hanging on for dear life, all because of bad choices you make—and I was totally and completely responsible, no extenuating circumstances, no pressure or stress, but rooted in vanity and pride—you can be certain that God hears your prayers, and he is there to help comfort and console you in the midst of crisis.
There is a kind of divorce that takes place in politics when a staffer embarrasses the President, the Senator, the congressman, or whomever. I fully expected and deserved to be cut off for the shame and embarrassment I caused. But as I say in The Man in the Middle, that is not what happened. The President forgave me; he comforted me; he prayed with me; he reached out to my wife and sons; and his grace and mercy and love for me and my family was real. It grew from his faith, and I came to see that the character and integrity that informed the pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-religious liberty policies that I so admired also extended to how George W. Bush treated all people. He has, as I say in the book, a greatness of soul, an internal moral compass, and we share the view that there exists an eternal moral order rooted in God himself.
Do you think that forgiveness and reconciliation have dropped out of our increasingly secular and acrimonious public life?
It is tempting to say yes but the answer, happily, is no. We remain, in Michael Novak’s words, a “religious republic.” Yes, we have become more secular; but we have not bended in the way most of the Europe has. I spend a lot of time speaking, meeting, and presenting in the work I do for Focus on the Family. I am always amazed to be on the most secular campuses in the country, or amid some gathering of otherwise heavy-duty worldly business, and just when I think that mercy and renewal are not present there will be a glimpse of hope or renaissance that gives me great joy.
Ours is a deeply fallen world to be sure; but Chesterton once wrote that he loved rainy days because they allowed him to see the colors more vividly amid the greys and hues. He was right. I am not an optimist; Iam not a pessimist; as a Christian, I am a “hopefulist,” and I know and trust and believe that the most important story of Western civilization does not end on Good Friday, but that Easter Sunday dawned to change the world.
Your role consisted in representing the administration to the conservative “base.” What do you think is the biggest misconception the base had about President Bush?
That his instincts and his motivations were not conservative. But in fact, they were and are. I was with him the night he delivered that remarkable speech to the American Conservative Union on its foundational anniversary. He said—and I quote this in the book—that the conservative movement was the most important political and intellectual movement of our era. He was right. During the Bush Administration, I hosted an annual, large gathering at the White House to honor the major conservatives in American history. We had a day devoted to Russell Kirk; to Bill Buckley; to Whittaker Chambers; to Ronald Reagan; to Milton Friedman.
For George W. Bush, the Constitution was the center of his conservatism. The nominations of John Roberts and Sam Alito confirmed that view. I write at length in my memoir about the host of decisions and major policies and personnel decisions that grew directly from the President’s conservatism, but I also acknowledge the areas where conservatives disagreed strongly with him. Those, too, are part of the record.
Your book highlights some of the remarkable and historic events you witnessed, including September 11 and the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Can you describe one that has had particular meaning for you?
The funeral of the Pope was nothing short of humbling and among the most transcendent experiences of my life. I am not Catholic, but I am a Lutheran with a catholic sensibility. Many of the most important writers and thinkers and essayists in the Catholic tradition have had a deep impact on me, none more than Chesterton, Newman, Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor. They are, for me, singular. John Paul II was one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, inside a century filled with villains and truly evil men. But he raised the idea of the sanctity and dignity of everyone to a new level, and his defense of the culture of life is “the” issue of our new era. He was so great that we will all be, in the words of a great historian, “internalizing” his achievement for the next century.
President Bush and all of us who attended the funeral—the first time a U.S. President has ever attended the funeral of a pontiff—were deeply moved by the sheer diplomacy, civility, and goodwill of those millions of people pouring into Rome from all the corners of the earth to pay homage to a man worthy of such homage.
When I was asked to be part of the team that put together the famed 9/14 “Service of Prayer and Remembrance” at Washington National Cathedral three days after the horror of 9/11, I recommended that Billy Graham preach. He agreed to do so; it was a remarkable day for America in the sheer beauty and joy of his words of comfort in light of the devastation and evil of the bombings. I mention this because there are no two men I have admired more that Billy Graham and John Paul II. Their well of grace and dignity and compassion is and was bottomless.
In the book, you mention Russell Kirk as bringing you back to first principles. What did you mean, and how would you characterize Kirk’s importance for conservatives today?
There is no person who has had a greater impact on me than Russell Kirk. We met through a series of letters, and I could never understand why this learned, famous, intellectual sage kept writing me back, at length, on deep topics, with such verve and spirit. But I came to see that he appreciated and loved friendship as much as I did. I never could have known or guessed that the conservative I admired most in my lifetime would become a friend, as would his singular wife Annette. Whenever the Kirks came to Washington in Russell’s last years, we always got together, and I write about just one of those times as I was having tea with Russell while overlooking the White House from the old Washington Hotel.
I came to see that Russell had a large outer life, but that his inner world was gigantic, in the same league as the men he introduced me to: Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and a host of other worthies. I came to see that Russell was their peer, and none more so than Edmund Burke.
But Russell always taught me, in his gentle, tender way to beware of ideologues, Left or Right; that life was about first principles that grew from the ideas that never changed. Russell’s defense of the immutable things that make life worth living were, for me, the ultimate expression of conservatism that grew from the Judeo-Christian tradition. That was a gift Russell gave to me—seeing life deeply, richly, bountifully. It was a view rooted in joy.
Eliot famously wrote what I believe Russell taught me to live: “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: That is enough for one man’s life.”
Many years later, after I had left the White House, I went back and read most of the important books that Russell had written. And I was thereby reintroduced to myself, to why I had gotten into politics to begin with; I could feel the politics drain away and the principles rise again to the top. Russell Kirk endures.
Do you see a future for the Tea Party in American politics? Where should conservatives place their emphasis as the nation enters increasingly troubling economic and social times?
I believe the Tea Party is an emanation of conservatism. It is in a long line of small- and limited-government conservatism that is healthy for the country. For the Tea Party, the center of American life is the Constitution. The Tea Party is right, and they are holding a mirror up to the vestiges of the progressive movement to show the rather hollow nature of that view.
The Tea Party’s strength is the push for reform. Burke said conservatism is about reform, not revolution. That principle remains. I think the Tea Party, and whatever may come after the Tea Party, will be seen as the conclusive counterweight to President Obama’s 2008 victory; the slap-down of 2010 in those historic midterms will be studied for years to come.
Thanks, Tim, for being with us.
A conversation with Timothy S. Goeglein on George W. Bush, faith, scandal, redemption, Russell Kirk, and his new book.