Michael S. Swisher
Michael S. Swisher is Chairman of St. Croix Review's Board of Directors
The Man in the Middle, by Timothy S. Goeglein. Nashville, Tennessee, 2011: B&H Publishing Group, 241 pp., cloth $19.99.
The Man in the Middle is Timothy Goeglein's memoir of his service on the campaign staff, and later the White House staff of George W. Bush, from 2000 to 2008. It is also a memoir of the early growth of his conservative convictions, and his entry into politics first as a staffer for Sen. Dan Coats (R, IN), then for Gary Bauer during his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Finally, it is a memoir of what has been called "the politics of personal destruction" from the point of view of one of its victims.
Goeglein, who will be familiar to long-time readers of The St. Croix Review as the author of a number of articles, and as the speaker at our 2006 annual meeting, came to conservatism at an early age. Neither his father, a painting contractor, or his mother, a housewife, had university degrees, but both were intelligent people with much practical experience in life. His father dealt daily with the economic realities of operating a small business. His mother, the child of Macedonian immigrants, had an intellectual curiosity that led her to undertake courses of study at the local campus of a state university, where she was astonished to discover the hostility of one of her professors towards the traditional family. Both parents were Lutherans, and eventually the family joined the conservative Missouri Synod, typifying the drift of many Protestants away from "mainstream" denominations that had become increasingly captivated by the "social gospel" even as they abandoned the bedrock teachings of Christianity. Reading was important to the Goeglein household, which was filled with books, and subscribed to two daily newspapers and a variety of magazines.
It was in this literate but mostly apolitical environment that Goeglein first discovered National Review at the newsstand of an old-fashioned tobacconist where his father, a pipe smoker, occasionally traded. This was young Tim's first exposure to the writers published by William F. Buckley, Jr., and through them to the Founding documents of the United States, the expository works of the Founders, and Anglo-American conservative thinkers such as Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. Discovering them, together with his sincere religious belief, worked together to shape his views as he eventually completed his university education and served a summer internship in Washington in the office of the then U.S. Senator Dan Quayle, later vice-president under George H.W. Bush. These experiences led, as noted, to Goeglein's later work for Coats, Bauer, and ultimately to a position in the Bush campaign and on the White House staff for George W. Bush.
Goeglein's account of his work for Bush begins with the lengthy and acrimonious Florida recount following the 2000 election. While other presidents have won the electoral vote without winning the popular vote (John Quincy Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes), this atypical result enabled Bush's opponents to characterize his presidency as somehow illegitimate from the start. As a result, with the exception of a few months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which shocked the country into temporary unity, the entire eight years of George W. Bush's presidency were a period of great partisan antagonism. Probably no president of the post-World War II era except Richard Nixon has been the object of such hostility from his political opposition and from the press.
The picture painted of Bush by the news media as a tongue-tied dullard in the thrall of sinister forces and retrograde causes is amply and refreshingly contradicted by Goeglein's first-hand account. It touches on many of the controversies the administration dealt with, ranging from stem-cell research, faith-based initiatives, the war in Iraq, judicial and other high-level appointments, abortion, and the definition of marriage. In these, and in his personal interaction with his staff and with the many political figures he encountered in the course of his presidency, George W. Bush appears as a thoughtful and decent man. Like all of us, prominent people in public life make errors in judgment and have flaws. Bush is no exception, but is very far from being the man so unflatteringly, indeed maliciously, caricatured in the press.
Goeglein's departure from the Bush White House was brought about by the discovery that an article he wrote for his local newspaper had been plagiarized. Almost at once what he describes as an "avalanche of media coverage" began. To his credit, Goeglein made no effort to deny or to minimize his offense; he had done wrong, and in the process had brought embarrassment to the administration. He knew he had only one course, which was to resign at once. Yet, on doing so, he found that Bush received him with forgiveness, and treated his family with great kindness. Goeglein writes that
. . . his grace was an extension of a casual, warm, earthy, companionable, and self-effacing man who always understood that power is ephemeral, the source of his genuine humility.
We have seen the politics of personal destruction played out for decades in Washington. It is the inheritance of a political and media culture that traces its immediate origins to the New Left slogan of the 1960s, "the personal is political." Rather than debating the issues and principles of the opposing parties, it diverts the discussion to the personal failings, be they great or small, of controversial politicians - and their subordinates. It is not to excuse or to palliate Goeglein's episode of plagiarism to point out that its very discovery arose as a consequence of this political climate. "Opposition research," designed to unearth such failings, and to portray them in as bad a light as possible, is practically an industry in Washington. Brought to the fore by the enemies of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, it has never since then ceased to be part of the political scene.
At that time, the technique of sniping at the president's staff became a commonplace tactical move: to take down the chief, first take down his assistants - the more able they are, the more urgent is the effort. It is really a revival of the technique of the parliamentary faction in the years before the English civil war, which brought the earl of Strafford and the Archbishop of Canterbury to the block as preludes to the judicial murder of Charles I. Today, no one is decapitated; it suffices to destroy their careers, and in some cases to ruin them economically. Because of what he himself describes as his "comparatively little influence," and by his prompt resignation, Goeglein was spared the worst of this, and he is today a vice-president of Focus on the Family.
Finally, that plagiarism is an offense cannot be denied; but it seems to be one for which only some suffer. We might with profit consider Goeglein's case alongside two others. The first is that of a then U.S. Senator, who, during an unsuccessful campaign for his party's presidential nomination, cribbed one of his speeches from a speech given by Neil Kinnock, then a leader of the British Labour Party. The second is that of a public figure who, though never elected to public office, exerted great influence and moral leadership in a popular movement at a time of great social disorder. This man was shown by detailed textual analysis to have plagiarized most of the dissertation by which he obtained the title of Doctor, an honorific by which he was, and remains, invariably identified. The former individual, Joe Biden, is now Vice President of the United States; the latter, Martin Luther King, is the only person whose birthday is officially observed in this country as a public holiday, and the closest thing we have to a secular saint. Biden just "brazened it out." King's plagiarism was not discovered during his lifetime; however, he has innumerable defenders who not only make excuses for it, but suggest that anyone who mentions it must have unworthy motives.
A hallmark of justice is supposed to be that equal cases are treated equally. Are they? *