The rule of law colors everything for Rep. Trey Gowdy, from the indignant prosecutorial style he employs in Capitol Hill hearings to his three dogs, aptly named Judge, Jury and Bailiff.
Republicans and Democrats alike say the second-term South Carolina Republican is the right man to head the special congressional investigation into Benghazi, a job that could springboard him into positions such as attorney general or service in a Republican presidential administration. But they also say the forthright former prosecutor isn't likely to cut corners on the investigation to score political points or raise his profile.
"I've put a lot of kids through law school, and there's just some people who can do it and some people [who] can't," said Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University who has served as an adviser to Mr. Gowdy. "And he's one that could. Extremely well-prepared but very effective in the courtroom. And that's where he built his reputation."
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, announced Mr. Gowdy as chairman of the committee even before lawmakers officially voted to establish the panel — a sign of the level of faith the Republican leadership has in Mr. Gowdy, 49.
Mr. Gowdy's office declined interviews in the days after his selection, but the congressman told "Fox News Sunday" this week that other investigations on Capitol Hill have not produced answers to plenty of questions about the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
Among those questions are why the U.S. was still in Benghazi despite the security risks and what President Obama was doing at the time of the attack.
"I have no friends to reward and no foes to punish. We're going to go wherever the facts take us," Mr. Gowdy said. "Facts are neither Republican nor Democrat. They are facts. And if we overplay our hand or if we engage in a process that is not fair according to the American people, we will be punished as we should be for that."
Mr. Gowdy gained attention over the past year for his tough questioning during House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigations into the Obama administration. He was the lawmaker who most forcefully argued the case that former Internal Revenue Service employee Lois G. Lerner waived her right to remain silent after she delivered a statement professing her innocence at her first committee appearance last year.
Mr. Gowdy has an impressive three bills that have been signed into law during his short time in Congress, and he serves on choice committees including the Education and the Workforce Committee, the Ethics Committee and the Judiciary Committee. He is chairman of the Judiciary panel's immigration subcommittee, putting him in the center of another raging policy debate.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who headed a number of investigations as chairman of the oversight committee, said Mr. Gowdy's background will serve him well.
"He's not what I'd call a 'red meat' Republican," said Mr. Davis. "He has a reputation of being thoughtful and thorough. And he's a prosecutor, so he knows how to [separate] fact from fiction. So I think that's why he's there."
Dealing with Democrats
Mr. Gowdy's first job as chairman will be to try to persuade Democrats to appoint five allotted members to the committee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and her aides have not tipped their hand on a decision.
Mr. Davis, who led a select committee investigating the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, said Democratic leaders boycotted the inquiry, so he invited Gulf Coast lawmakers to join independently.
The Benghazi panel will look into the policy and security questions surrounding the September 2012 attack on the U.S. outpost in Libya that resulted in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Mr. Gowdy made his first stumble by portraying the investigation as a trial and the White House as the defendant. He conceded on Fox that perhaps he needed to get out of a 16-year habit of speaking in trial metaphors.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who serves with Mr. Gowdy on the House oversight panel, said the trial analogy gave him pause.
After congratulating Mr. Gowdy on the appointment, Mr. Connolly recalled, "I said, 'You have a choice. This is an opportunity for you to make your mark as a fair and balanced chairman who's capable of resisting the baser pressures from your echo chamber on the right and rise to the occasion and show some stature, or you can be remembered as just another flack who ran it in a partisan fashion with very little credibility who came and went."
Mr. Connolly hastened to add that he has a good working relationship with Mr. Gowdy and wasn't trying to be confrontational.
"But I was saying you've got two clear paths, and it matters which one you choose," he said. "I like Trey Gowdy, and we've become very friendly and we have jousted, but done it in a civil and mutually respectful way, and we'll see whether we have an opportunity to expand on that."
'He's that good'
Mr. Woodard met Mr. Gowdy before his first political run for solicitor, South Carolina's equivalent to a district attorney, in 2000. After winning election, Mr. Gowdy instantly changed the culture of the position from delegator to litigator.
"I mean, he knew just where to run that court case to get a conviction," Mr. Woodard said with a chuckle. "And he knew exactly where he was on solid ground and where there was weak ground, and he didn't go to the weak ground."
Mr. Gowdy's pursuit of justice occasionally made him a target. He, his wife, Terri, and his two children sometimes found a deputy sheriff staying in their home because of threats resulting from high-profile cases he prosecuted, Mr. Woodard recalled.
Mr. Woodard said that if Mr. Gowdy succeeds as chairman of the select committee and a Republican wins the White House in 2016, the congressman could be at the top of the list of attorney general candidates.
"I think that could happen. He's that good," he said. "He's not quick to speak — kind of slow. But when he says something, he really, you know, carries some weight. He won't turn this into a witch hunt. He's not a wild-eyed sort of guy who does things like that."
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