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George W. Bush will always remain one of the most compelling figures ever to occupy the Oval Office. Ironically, the complexities surrounding the nation’s 43rd president stand out far more than the caricature of a simpleton who somehow managed to find himself the most powerful man on Earth.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Bush is the question of his personal faith.
Much has been written about the subject, ranging from warm and fuzzy generalizations about Bush’s brand of Christianity to conspiracy stories (Skull & Bones affliliation, etc.).
That’s why Timothy Goeglein’s new book, “The Man in the Middle,” is so fascinating. Goeglein, who served eight years as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liason, saw the man up close, and his book reflects that.
The whole issue of the president’s faith is important, from his own embrace of Methodism relatively late in life, to the potential impact on foreign policy (a favorite bogeyman of the left, especially the Christian left, as if Bush held a Bible in one hand and the red phone in the other).
Goeglein writes in an easy style and allows the story to speak for itself. And the book packs a wallop right from the get-go in Karl Rove’s foreword. There, the political Svengali says that “Tim’s book is pugnacious, often dealing revisionist blows to mistaken conventional wisdom about President Bush, his decisions, methods, strengths and intentions.”
One of the more admirable qualities of this book, and of the author himself, is its unvarnished opening. Goeglein had written a column for his local hometown newspaper, and it came to light that part of the piece was plagiarized. Shocking and gut-punching stuff for a person in his position.
Yet he owned up to it, unequivocally.
Goeglein wrote out his resignation and a personal apology to the president. Although one could say that Goeglein’s transgression was almost comically isolated – when one considers what, say, a typical Bill Clinton day was like before breakfast each day –Goeglein still recognized the damage he’d done to his own reputation.
Remarkably, the clouds lifted for him over this incident, when Bush called him in to the Oval Office a few days later. Goeglein repeatedly tried to apologize, but the president repeatedly told him he was forgiven.
“I have known mercy and grace in my own life,” Bush said.
That encounter sets the tone for “The Man in the Middle,” as Goeglein shares fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits, from the campaign trail in Austin, to the closing days of the Bush term.
Not surprisingly, one the most gripping moments came in the aftermath of 9/11. Part of Goeglein’s job was to coordinate the prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. Bush’s remarks that day, historic as they were, came down to a glimpse Goeglein saw of the president when he returned to his seat.
“A touching, tender moment occurred after the president concluded and returned to his seat in the front pew,” Goeglein writes. “His father, President George H.W. Bush, looking straight ahead, leaned over and grabbed his son’s arm as if to say, ‘Well done. I love you.’ It was a great moment.”
The book is loaded with such fascinating tidbits. Another time, the author recounts the controversy surrounding Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. A key advisor to the president, Miers was a puzzling choice to the conservative base. The nomination unraveled when the left then began investigating her past, but this type of vignette – because it touches on the faith aspects of such decisions – helps make “The Man in the Middle” a jewel of a book.
Critics might dismiss this book as the product of a close advisor to a conservative president, yet the reader gets a strong sense that Goeglein is willing to present his experiences without a revisionist mindset.
He also offers rare perspective on details that matter to people of faith, such as: “President Bush created conscience-clause protections for doctors, nurses and other health-care workers in the medical professions, protecting them from being coerced into taking part in abortions, while formally protecting them in the law; another protection revoked by the Obama administration.”
“The Man in the Middle” is the perfect book to absorb on a cold winter day. It provides a warm, intimate look at a man who led the country during a time of great crises. Goeglein hits a homerun with this one.