- - Friday, October 7, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE: AN INSIDE ACCOUNT OF FAITH AND POLITICS IN THE GEORGE W. BUSH ERA
By Timothy S. Goeglein
Foreword by Karl Rove
B & H Books, $19.99, 241 pages

The political memoir has become the natural product of all modern presidencies. After walking though the White House gates one last time, a handful of opportunistic appointees always rush to their computers to settle scores or embellish their own significance.

By a back-of-the-envelope calculation, there have been at least half a dozen such books written by various former aides and advisers to President George W. Bush. Most of these offer less insight about the 43rd president and his administration than about the egos and insecurities of their authors. Not so with Timothy Goeglein’s “The Man in the Middle.”

If the name sounds familiar to the world outside of Washington, it’s not likely because of his work there. Mr. Goeglein, whom I know and have worked with, served as Mr. Bush’s point man for conservatives and played a significant but relatively quiet role in promoting the president’s agenda and getting him elected and re-elected. The Washington Post, in a 2004 profile, aptly described him as “influential, if little-seen.”

That semi-anonymity ended abruptly in early 2008 when a blogger discovered that Mr. Goeglein had, for some years, used plagiarized material to fill a weekly column in his hometown newspaper. He tendered his resignation shortly after the revelation made national news.

Now, nearly four years later, comes “The Man in the Middle,” an account of this fall from grace and everything that led up to it. As such, it provided a perfect opportunity for the author to explain away and make excuses for his mistakes or even wallow in his misfortune. Mr. Goeglein, much to his credit, does not exercise these options.

This is not a book about self-pity or blame-shifting. “I did it knowingly and repeatedly,” Mr. Goeglein writes of his indiscretion. “There were no extenuating circumstances or justifications for what I did. It was not a mistake or an oversight. It was not due to sloppiness. I was deceptive, and it was all rooted in vanity and pride.”

Though this sets the humble tone for much of what follows, this is not a 300-page mea culpa, but instead a firsthand account of Mr. Bush’s presidency, viewed through the author’s faith and conservative moorings. Mr. Goeglein spent seven years with this president and was on hand for and played significant roles in many of his administration’s highs and lows - the Florida recount, the debate over the use of embryonic stem cells, the national prayer service in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq and its difficult aftermath, the successful nominations of Judges John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court and the abandoned attempt to place White House Counsel Harriet Miers on the same, all of which are chronicled here.

But boiled down to its essence, the book is really an affectionate defense of Mr. Bush. Mr. Goeglein argues that taken together, Mr. Bush’s policies - his war on terrorism, his tax cuts, his defense of the unborn and his program for AIDS relief in Africa - were correct, and will be vindicated by history. This line of reasoning is familiar. It may also prove to be right.

However, the most convincing defense of his former boss here is not policy-based. Shortly after his resignation and before his departure, Mr. Bush summoned Mr. Goeglein - at this point, like any fallen figure in Washington, toxic and disposable - to the Oval Office. Apprehensive and expecting to be hauled over the coals, he was stunned by the president’s send-off. “I have known mercy and grace in my own life,” said Mr. Bush. “I am offering it to you now. You are forgiven.” This anecdote is not exactly a vindication of his presidency, but it is welcome affirmation of Mr. Bush’s too-little-appreciated decency and bigheartedness.

Mr. Goeglein could have written yet another opportunistic, gossip-filled tell-all. There seems to be an enduring audience for those exercises. Instead, he has done something far more interesting: He owns up to his own faults and offers both a thoughtful and cheerful defense of a much-maligned leader.

At some point in the future, after the passage of time brings sufficient distance, historians will look at Mr. Bush’s complicated presidency objectively. When that day comes, Mr. Goeglein’s recollections will serve as a valuable primary source. In the meantime, his book’s mix of imperfection, purpose and grace is a fitting coda for its subject.

Ryan L. Cole served in the administration of George W. Bush.

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