Tim Goeglein worked in the George W. Bush White House for eight years, and it was in the Oval Office that the president forgave him.
While working as an aide to Bush, Goeglein repeatedly plagiarized columns he sent to his hometown newspaper under his byline. When his actions were discovered, he went to Bush to apologize, fully expecting to be fired.
"Before I could get barely a few words out," he says, "he looked at me, and he said, 'Tim, grace and mercy are real. I have known grace and mercy in my life, and I'm extending it to you. You're forgiven.' "
Today, Goeglein works for the Focus on the Family Christian ministry. In his new book, The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, he writes about his experiences in the Bush administration. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that religion has a vital place in American politics — and has ever since the country was born.
"In the founding discussions and debates, men as elementally different as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — I mean, these people didn't agree on whether we should have a national bank, a national currency and, at one remove, whether we ought to have a constitution," he says, "but they all agreed, categorically, that freedom and liberty came from God, not from government."
Yet the founding fathers themselves were of different faiths. Jefferson is widely believed to have been a deist. John Adams was a Unitarian. Absolutely, Goeglein acknowledges, "but they were all preoccupied with one thing, which was what they called the other side of liberty — the other side of freedom, which was virtue."
"They said within the American experience, virtue — which was moral excellence — came in the American experience from the Judeo-Christian tradition, from the Holy Scriptures," Goeglein says. "They were not uncomfortable with government and religion being of one piece."
"They were terrified of an established church — and they made that very clear," he says.
Goeglein himself believes that faith and government go together, and that the relationship transcends party politics.
"I believe that the conservative movement is stronger and more effective than the Republican Party," he says. The two are often conflated, but whether they're in politics or not, conservative thinkers are very influential. And despite the political rancor of the times, he says, they do want to have a conversation.
"They are people who, I think, are first and foremost interested in a civil dialogue," he says. "But I can tell you that they would disagree strongly with their friends on the left."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. For eight years, Tim Goeglein worked as President George W. Bush's liaison to the evangelical community. But everything changed for Goeglein in 2008 when he received an email that would end his career in the White House.
TIM GOEGLEIN: (Reading) I open the email, 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. My only prayer, which I repeated again and again, was God help me, God help me. I knew instantly this would be the most impossible day of my life and my heart was pounding as if to burst from my chest.
RAZ: What happened after that is chronicled in Goeglein's new book. It's called "The Man in the Middle." And he joins me now here in the studio. Tim Goeglein, welcome.
GOEGLEIN: Thank you. It's great to be here.
RAZ: So this email that you open up, who is it from? What does it say?
GOEGLEIN: It's a reporter who says to me: I've learned about the plagiarism. Is it true?
RAZ: That you've plagiarized something.
GOEGLEIN: That's correct. And..
RAZ: But what was it?
GOEGLEIN: I was doing a column for my hometown newspapers, and it was absolutely true that I had been plagiarizing some of those columns.
RAZ: Why were you doing it? I mean, why were you plagiarizing?
GOEGLEIN: It's been my experience that pride takes a lot of avenues. For some people, the expression of the pride is sex. For some people, it's power. Some people, it's money. In my instance, it was wanting to be the clever one, the one who said it better than anybody else, the one who wrote it better. And it would be very easy to come to a microphone like this and to say, well, this was the extenuating circumstance, this was the form of pressure, this...
RAZ: I mean, but was there pressure?
GOEGLEIN: There was no pressure, there was no stress, there were no extenuating circumstances. There was no one to blame but yours truly. And I knew exactly and expressly what I was doing, and I did it anyway.
RAZ: You decided right there on the spot that you were going to resign.
RAZ: How did President Bush react?
GOEGLEIN: I went into the Oval Office, and I shut the door, and it was just George W. Bush and me. And I turned to the president to apologize. And I barely got a few words out, and he looked me in the eyes, and he said: You're forgiven. And I was speechless. And I regained my composure, and I looked at the president again, eyeball to eyeball, and started to apologize. And before I could get barely a few words out, he looked at me and he said: Tim, grace and mercy are real. I have known grace and mercy in my life, and I'm extending it to you. You're forgiven.
And I tried a third time, and this time, I apologized. I said to him, he should have taken me by the lapels and thrown me onto Pennsylvania Avenue for what I had done. And he said: Again, you're forgiven. Grace and mercy are real. Now, we can spend the next few minutes talking about all of this, or we can talk about the last eight years. We prayed together briefly, and I looked around the Oval Office, and I thought that would be my last time there and my last time to see the president.
And as I was departing, he said: By the way, I would like you to bring your wife and children here so that I can tell them what a great husband and father you have been. And at that point, it was - I think it's fair to say - the most surreal moment in my life. This is not what the leader of the free world typically does.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Tim Goeglein about his new book, "The Man in the Middle," about his eight years working for President George W. Bush in the White House. Tim, President Bush, of course, was earnest in his convictions and his beliefs. But he also believed that he was chosen by God to carry out certain things at a certain time in history, particularly after 9/11. And some have argued, as you know, that some of the decisions that he took - for example, the invasion of Iraq - if indeed it was guided by this divine notion, that maybe it would have been better had he been a bit more dispassionate or sort of separated himself from his faith at times. What do you think about that?
GOEGLEIN: I believe that in the great history of this remarkable country that faith and politics go together. This is not Western Europe. It's not Eastern Europe or Central Europe. It's America. In the founding discussions and debates, men as elementally different as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson - I mean, these people didn't agree on whether we ought to have a national bank, a national currency, and as one removed, whether we ought to have a constitution. But they all agreed categorically that freedom and liberty came from God, not from government.
RAZ: But there, of course, their notion of God were somewhat different than yours. I mean, many of these men were theists.
GOEGLEIN: Absolutely, yes. There were Orthodox Christians there. There were theists and perhaps none of the above. But they were all preoccupied with one thing, which was what they called the other side of liberty, the other side of freedom, which was virtue. And they said that in the American experience, virtue, which was moral excellence, came from the Judeo-Christian tradition, from the holy scriptures. They were not uncomfortable with government and religion being of one piece.
RAZ: Tim, I'm curious about your time in the White House because, obviously, our listeners can't see you, but you're a very, very earnest man. You're very friendly, kind of soft-spoken, and you worked in a White House that was characterized as a cutthroat place under Karl Rove. I know you know him - knew him well. You know the sort of the political intrigue and the strategizing. And I wonder how did you survive in that atmosphere?
GOEGLEIN: When I came to the White House in 2001, right at the beginning after the inauguration, I had several people in Washington and far beyond Washington who had worked in many White Houses of both parties tell me be careful, that you'll know this right away whether the Republicans are there or the Democrats.
RAZ: It's ugly.
GOEGLEIN: That's right. I was warned over and over. But the Bush administration, the Bush White House, was different.
RAZ: William F. Buckley was somebody you knew and admired and influenced you. His style, his approach from today's vantage point, seems almost quaint. He was polite, he was civil, he was charming. I wonder whether you think that kind of conservative leadership is around in the public sphere.
GOEGLEIN: It is out there.
RAZ: Is it influential?
GOEGLEIN: I believe so. In fact, I would say this: I believe that the conservative movement is stronger and more effective than the Republican Party. And I think so often, the Republican Party is conflated with the conservative movement. Conservatism is not a political program. It has a political element. But I learned from my friends, both Russell Kirk and Bill Buckley, that we make a mistake if we elevate ideology.
RAZ: I know that, of course, you're a conservative, but, as you know, there's been a growing number of liberal evangelicals who've been involved with the Democratic Party. Do you see that as an encouraging thing for evangelical Christianity at large?
GOEGLEIN: I believe very strongly that American evangelical Christianity has grown up. And as any sect in this regard grows up, it also grows outward. And I believe that, yes, it's a good thing that there is a strong Christian influence in both parties. Elementally, I think that that's a good thing. But I believe that in both the short and the medium term, by and large, that most self-identified conservative Christians will continue to find the Republican Party as its natural home.
RAZ: That's Tim Goeglein. He is the vice president of external relations for Focus on the Family. He served as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison under President George W. Bush for nearly eight years. His new book about that time is called "The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era." Tim Goeglein, thank you so much for coming in.
GOEGLEIN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.