Tim Goeglein served more than seven years as special assistant to President George W. Bush and as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. By his own account, his job involved no making of public policy. He resigned in mid-2008, after admitting charges of plagiarism in the writing of columns for a daily newspaper in his home state of Indiana.
Why, then, is reading his autobiography, Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, so absorbing? The key is in the main title, chosen because of Goeglein’s role as the intermediary between the Bush administration and outside groups, with an accent on conservative groups and leaders within that community.
Consistent with his loyalty to the administration and to the man he reported to for most of his tenure, Karl Rove, Goeglein defends each of the Bush decisions and moves he was tasked with explaining to conservatives. But he is a superb reporter with an eye for detail, and surprisingly candid concerning various bumps in the road. His chapter on the president’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the U. S. Supreme Court is titled, “Trying to Sell What Nobody Would Buy.”
Goeglein is a man in the middle in a much larger sense. Born and raised in middle America, he is an undiluted disciple of the American conservative movement: conservative on economic, social, and foreign-policy issues. He sees the Reagan years as the epitome of a successful presidency, but became a committed conservative as a teenager, even before Reagan’s election. His professional life led him, somewhat unexpectedly, into an intimate relationship with the conservative and Republican politics of his time.
He accepted this vocation with a spirit of adventure and sense of wonder, and never lost them. Even his departure from the administration turns into an occasion of gratitude, when his intense sense of guilt and betrayal are interrupted with the words, “Tim, I want you to know I forgive you….I have known mercy and grace in my own life, and I am offering it to you now … 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.”
There are similar moments of high drama in Goeglein’s insider’s view of Bush’s memorable September 14, 2011, speech in the National Cathedral and in preparations for the president’s multiple meetings with two different popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. With the single exception of the administration’s reaction to the financial crisis that erupted in 2007, I can think of no high-profile controversy of the Bush ascendancy on which Goeglein fails to cast some measure of light.
But in my view, Goeglein’s greatest contribution is his description of the internal dynamics not of the Bush administration, but of the American conservative movement. He provides detailed narrative of becoming, in the 1990s, a protégé of William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, the men who between the two of them virtually invented and defined the conservative movement in the 1950s. But his untiring fascination with people gives him a sense of what changed, and did not change, in the conservative worldview over half a century, culminating in the complex power curve that had emerged in 2001-2008. Goeglein is particularly illuminating in his analysis of the role of faith and family in animating American conservatism as we know it today.
Karl Rove benefited greatly from his choice of Goeglein as his eyes and ears within the conservative movement. With his help, Rove learned to play Washington’s conservative elites like a violin. But there are also major instances (the Miers nomination being one) where conservative leaders found this man in the middle a critical asset in bringing the administration down to earth from what nearly became one of its most catastrophic mistakes.
Readers of The Man in the Middle may hesitate about going into this line of work, but will come away with a far greater sense of what the war of ideas in the polarized trenches of 21st-century America is really all about.
Jeffrey Bell is policy director of American Principles Project and author of the forthcoming The Case for Polarization: Why America Needs Social Conservatism from Encounter Books.