A plagiarism scandal forced Timothy Goeglein to resign in 2008 from former President George W. Bush's administration. The special assistant to President Bush and public liaison deputy director often engaged with evangelicals before he admitted to copying work for several of his columns for a newspaper in Indiana. He previously worked for Indiana Senator Dan Coats and once served as a spokesman for Gary Bauer, who ran for President in 2000. The now vice president for external relations at Focus on the Family spoke to Christianity Today about what led to the plagiarism, how the President responded, and what grace and redemption mean in a political context.
What happened after a reporter revealed that you had plagiarized?
When you embarrass the President, a divorce takes place. You become persona non grata immediately. Through my own fault, no pressure, no stress, no extenuating circumstances, because of what I did and the choices I made, I inflicted shame and embarrassment on the man who has given me the greatest professional opportunity of my life. I inflicted shame and embarrassment on my wife, my children, my 20 years of interns—I was a total hypocrite—and I resigned.
How did President Bush react?
I resigned, no excuses, on a Friday. On a Monday I came in to take the pictures off my wall and clear off my desk, and I received a call from the chief of staff, Josh Bolton. He asked me how my wife and children were doing and told me he forgave me. He said, "The boss wants to see you." That means the President. When I got there, it was just the President and me, and I apologized. He looked at me and said "Tim, I forgive you." I tried to apologize a second time, and he said, "Grace and mercy is real. I've known it in my life and I'm sending it to you." And I said, "Mr. President, I apologize. Please forgive me." He said, "I'll say it again: Grace and mercy is real. You are forgiven. Now we can talk about all of this, or we can talk about the last eight years." We spent 20 minutes together. We prayed and we embraced. I cried when I was looking around the Oval Office for the last time. And as I prepared to leave he said, "By the way, I want you to bring your wife and sons here so I can tell them what a great husband and father you've been." Sure enough, he invited them to come. He was the leader of the free world, validating me, after I did what I did, before my wife and children.
Was there something that led to the plagiarism?
Yes. Pride and vanity.
Did something lead to pride and vanity, like external pressures?
For some people, pride takes the trajectory of sex or it takes the trajectory of power or it takes the trajectory of money. You take that notion of pride and vanity and you sort of swirl it into a mix to sort of project something you want. I wanted to be the one who was clever, the one who had a way to say it the best. Pride led me to this notion of personal elevation and personal stature. One way to do that is to project that through words, so I would hear something like, "Oh, that was really eloquently put." I knew what I was doing. It was not time pressure or stress or any other extenuating circumstances.
Do you have any concerns about at least the appearance of trying to capitalize on your story?
Absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite. A friend of mine who worked at Thomas Nelson publishers encouraged me to write the book. I said no for three years. I hate to see that there is a genre of books that is written not by the senior-most people but by people like me. I was not a confidante of the President. I was not the senior-most person. When you are like me, someone who had close access to the President for a lot of things, I think that you see certain things. You make a contribution by sharing what you see. What I came to see was the wonderful character and integrity and the hard work of George W. Bush.
Did you feel like plagiarizing affected other Christians or the reputation of Christians in government?
I was the point man for people of faith during my time with President Bush. Faith is real, but so was my deception. What I did does not compromise the truth of Christianity but it did expose my own hypocritical acts. When you are a public figure and a representative for the President, you have an obligation of high standards. I failed. But grace and mercy are real. So is forgiveness. My brothers and sisters in Christ forgave me; I did not deserve that forgiveness, but they offered it out of love. So did the President. We need men and women of faith in government more than ever, and we have a duty for excellence.
What kind of church do you go to, and did that shape you in your response?
I am a cradle Missouri Synod Lutheran, a serious Christian. I'm very involved in the life of our parish, and I had a very serious [discussion] with our pastor over time and also with a group of three men in Washington where I really had a chance to be away, to open up.
You wrote, "This gave me great hope, because hope drained the toxicity from professional life that kicked into overdrive; it gave me new perspective." What was the toxicity in your professional life?
Politics at any level can be toxic. After two high-profile Senate races in Indiana, I certainly experienced that. You pray that your motives are as pure as they can be. But when you're in it, it can be rough and tumble. There was a lot of toughness. A lot. When you genuinely step away from it, and things come to an end—you start to reflect and realize, wow, it's a blessing to step away.
After you left the administration, did you read literature or consider a theology of redemption? What resources did you seek out?
It's one thing to read the Scripture or to read the sort of poetic or philosophical descriptions of Scripture, but when you are actually, proverbially, daily in the midst of a self-imposed, self-created crisis, you are drinking the Cross. In the Christian life, to use a cliché, when you come to the end of your rope, you learn that Christ is there. I learned that in a very personal way. You learn about the centrality and love of your family and friends. A formal confession gives a sense of genuine confession, of genuine absolution.
Have you found some kind of resolution?
We are all sinners. But we are also made saints at exactly the same time. We don't work out our redemption. Christ redeemed us. But this side of heaven, yes, it is an ongoing process for all Christians.
You write, "It is as if God worked through me for years and then one moment allowed me to be stripped of worldly masks, reformed and new." What masks were stripped away?
The capacity for self-deception can be huge, and it can be incremental. I came to a moment where I was truly exposed, and I had a choice. The choice was to continue along that trajectory or to admit that what I had done was an absolute failure in my life. In that was my confession, not confessing to a friend or confessing to a pastor or confessing to a confidante, but confessing in a way that you know will become public.
So how about advice for people about being a Christian in public life? Is it possible?
We don't choose angels or perfect men and women to be our leaders. I believe for my fellow Christians that we ought to be very careful that we understand that we, as Christians, are citizens of two places. We're citizens of the country where we live, but we are ultimately citizens of heaven where we're going. Chuck Colson has rightly called these the kingdoms in conflict. It happens in Jerusalem. It's the city of God and the city of man. We have to be very careful to understand that there are two realms. We can't expect perfection in one realm because there was only one perfect human being.
That sounds pretty Lutheran.
Luther was an Augustinian monk, and he was very influenced by St. Augustine in the concept of the place in which a person's faith and public life cross. The Augustinian view is one that I think is pushed a lot among leaders. I love America; I think it's the greatest country. But I'm very careful not to conflate pride in my country with heaven itself.
Some complain that evangelicals have been too involved with the Republican Party in predictable ways. Are you concerned about that?
I am. You had this rise of people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who helped bring a lot of people into public life, which I think is a good thing. A certain duty of the Christian life is to vote and to be involved. But I also believe in prudence. The U.S. Constitution is not the Bible. A political party is not the church.
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Previous coverage of Timothy Goeglein, Focus on the Family, and George W. Bush includes:
Focus on the Family Action Taps Former Bush Aide who Resigned for Plagiarism | He was special assistant to President Bush and public liaison deputy director, often acting as a pipeline for social conservatives, including evangelicals. (January 28, 2009)
Refocusing on the Family | Like many evangelical organizations that were built in the past 50 years, Focus on the Family is attempting to thrive—and survive—past its founder. (July 1, 2011)
Bush's Defining Moment | The President, facing a grief-stricken nation under attack, finds his voice and his mission. (November 12, 2001)
Christianity Today covers political developments on the politics blog.