In 2008, Tim Goeglein was at the pinnacle of success for a then 44-year-old politico. A journalism major who used his communications skills to fine tune the messages of members of Congress and eventually the president of the United States, he had indeed arrived until he began committing one of the biggest sins in public life – secretly using the work of other writers without attribution.
It is called plagiarism and in the world journalism and politics, it seems an unpardonable sin.
The fall was swift and painful. That’s because Goeglein not only was in the White House inner circle, he was the face of President George W. Bush when it came to dealing with evangelical leaders nationally. The event attracted the sharpest of criticism from gleeful enemies and the White House could not defend itself.
Nine out of ten who fail in this way never recover, either in public life or in personal relationships.
Yet Goeglein is now vice president of external affairs for Focus on the Family, just celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary, and enjoys the trust of most of his former colleagues, including the former president.
In his new book, The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, Goeglein talks about his poor decisions, how his close friends and the president handled his failures and how forgiveness and redemption are now the driving forces in his life.
Goeglien’s story in a nutshell: Sitting at his desk early one morning in the spring of 2008, he read an email from a reporter who had identified his plagiarism. The reporter was a blogger and columnist for The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Goeglein had recently submitted a column that was published in the paper. She wanted to know was it true? Goeglein knew the answer. He also knew this wasn’t going to be pretty. In the short term, it wasn’t.
The impending actions were swift.
“This is not acceptable, and we are disappointed in Tim’s actions,” White House spokesperson Emily Lawrimore told The New York Times immediately after the incident was revealed. “He is offering no excuses, and he agrees it was wrong.”
Goeglein did what any good solider would do in a similar situation. He fell on his sword and immediately resigned. As it turned out, this was not an isolated incident. Goeglein had plagiarized at least 19 other articles.
He expected his world to collapse but the opposite happened. He began anew.
In an exclusive interview with The Christian Post, Goeglein explains the transformation.
CP: Tim, as a trained journalism you knew the rules and the severity of plagiarism. Why did you choose to use the work of others in such a public way?
Goeglein: Pride takes many avenues. For some it’s sex, money, power or a host of other things. For me, it was wanting to say something better than someone else and that’s what led me to use others' works. It was all my fault and I immediately realized my sin. The capacity for self-deception can be high. But I learned forgiveness and redemption are real.
CP: What was your initial reaction when you received the email from the reporter asking if you were guilty?
Goeglein: The first thing I did was fall to my knees and I prayed, ‘Oh God, oh God.’ I realized I had failed – that I was guilty. Next, I immediately replied to the reporter who inquired and confessed – yes, I confessed. I knew I had to resign. Having seen similar situations in my political career, I knew the world I had come to know and love would end and I wanted any deception I had created to end as well.
CP: You mention going home to your wife and kids that Friday evening and having to tell them. What was that like?
Goeglein: The first thing I had to do was inform the director of Public Liaison and various colleagues. I spent most of the day at the office handling my responsibilities, but then I drove home to my wife and children. I told my wife and sons and we spent the evening together as a family. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life – having to admit confess to them in person that I had let them down and ask for their forgiveness.
Forgiveness and redemption are real and it is a process, not a one-time event. There is a lot of pain involved and I am grateful my wife and children extended that forgiveness to me. I’m humbled to say my wife and I just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. I thank God for her every day.
CP: How would you best describe President Bush’s faith?
Goeglein: Deep, wide and very central to who he is as a person. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because we are already seeing the Bush administration in a different light and I believe my book is on the cutting edge of this revelation.
You cannot understand the presidency of George W. Bush unless you understand how central his faith is to him. Meeting and praying with him in the Oval office a few days after my resignation was an incredible experience.
CP: It seems many of your close friends and associates extended the gift of forgiveness to you. Is there anyone you believe has withheld that forgiveness and how do you deal with that?
Goeglein: Hmmm, I haven’t thought in terms of that calculus. The people most important to me – my family and close friends – have been tremendous. I can’t think of an instance where those who mattered the most have withheld forgiveness.
In the political world, when you embarrass the president, a member of Congress or your superior, you have to resign – you must go. In most situations, you are cut off from their world. In short, you are persona non grata. This is what I expected to happen but only by God’s grace and mercy was I forgiven and treated so wonderfully by so many.
I was deeply influenced as a young man by C.S. Lewis’ book, Surprised by Joy. The British poet William Wordsworth wrote, “Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind.” I understood the joy part but was mystified by the part about the wind. Now I understand as Christians we can experience joy, many times in the worst of circumstances. Some say that in the Christian life we aren’t supposed to be surprised by joy, yet at my lowest point – when I did not deserve anything – I received God’s grace and mercy.
When we are at the end of our ropes, Jesus Christ is there.
CP: Most Christians believe God has a purpose for everything. Do you agree and in what direction to you feel he is leading you?
Goeglein: I strongly agree with this statement. I believe vocation is central to the Christian life. This is not necessarily the same as our profession. Vocation is that thing when we are Christians that we are doing so that we are in sync with God.
Regardless of where we find ourselves in life, when we are serving God we are living the life of Christian service. I believe our life is about serving others first.
CP: What advice do you have for someone whose sins have been publicly exposed?
Goeglein: I’m careful not to offer too much advice in this area. There is a difference between discernment and judgment and I don’t want to judge others.
Admitting what you did is wrong is the beginning of forgiveness and redemption. Taking that first step is important. Relationships matter. My advice is to pay attention to the relationships in your life, admit what you did was wrong and start over.
Hope, trust and faith are not just terms. They are as real as Jesus Christ himself.