The worst day of my life began as one of the most luminous. The contrast between the glory of that morning and the horror of that evening bordered on the surreal.
During my seven and a half years at the White House, working as a special assistant to President George W. Bush as the deputy director of the office of public liaison and as one of Karl Rove’s aides, I was rarely at my desk later than 6:30 in the morning. That day I got to work as usual. After some morning chores, I spent a deeply happy lunch with a friend whom I had not seen in a long time. As we departed the hotel, he remarked to me what a beautiful morning it was, one of the best of the year. When I returned to my office and popped open my e-mail, I saw a note from a reporter I knew during my decade on Capitol Hill, working for U.S. Senator Dan Coats of Indiana as his press secretary and communications director.
I opened the e-mail, read it once, felt the blood drain from my head, got down on my knees next to my desk, and was overcome with a fear and trepidation as never before. My only prayer, which I repeated again and again, was, “God help me. God help me.” I knew instantly this would be the most impossible day of my life, and my heart was pounding as if to burst from my chest.
I sat back down and responded to the reporter’s e-mail. She told me she had learned that I plagiarized part of a recent column I wrote in my local hometown newspaper, The News-Sentinel. She wanted to know: was it true?
It was indeed true, and I told her so instantly by return e-mail. When I sent that e-mail reply, acknowledging what I had done, in all my guilt and shame, I knew events of that day would move rapidly toward my resignation from the White House and from service to a president I loved and respected. Every one of the principles I held and espoused, every one of the values I was raised by—truth in all things, character above intellect, unquestioned integrity before God and man alike—every mentor who ever invested part of his or her life in me, I had violated and violated completely.
My hypocrisy was transparent, and I was guilty as charged. What a prideful fool I was, and it was all my fault without excuse or exception. Mine would be a public failure in the front ranks. Whatever punishment was to follow that day and in the weeks to come, I deserved completely.
The avalanche of media coverage began almost immediately. One of George W. Bush’s aides was caught in a plagiarism scandal. My colleagues were incredulous and disbelieving: What were the details? What was the context? Surely it could not be true? I had become close friends with many of my colleagues in various offices at the White House; and as they learned of the story, their e-mails and calls of disbelief began pouring in. Surely, most said, this was a mistake or an oversight or due to busyness or sloppiness. Surely, they said, in all their friendship and love, I could not have “meant” to plagiarize.
But I did it knowingly and repeatedly, as stories in the days to follow would show. 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. Mine was a high-profile role, relational in tone and quality. As people around the country with whom I worked learned of my story, they began to call and email in response to the major cable and radio networks who were broadcasting my story of plagiarism. Even as I write these words, the horror of that morning and the events of that day come back to haunt me with the pain and awfulness I inflicted on others, but most especially the three people I love most in the world, my wife and sons. I embarrassed them all deeply in a betrayal rooted in self-centeredness and ambition.
I resigned that afternoon, writing a personal letter of apology to the president. I departed the White House that Friday shattered and fearful, exiting the White House gates as I had done a thousand times before and vowing to myself that, even as I returned to work to foster a smooth transition for my successor, I would never again darken the doorstep of the West Wing. I had always held up as nearly sacred ground that part of the White House because of the thousands of decisions—many of them life-and-death decisions of war and peace—that are made there, which so deeply impact the direction of our country.
Upon my arrival home that afternoon, I gathered my family into our living room and, in no uncertain terms and placing no varnish on my rottenness, explained to my wife and sons what I had done. The look on their faces crushed me, so completely had I betrayed their love and trust in me. When I asked for their forgiveness, they gave it to me willingly but in a state of disbelief.
The evening remains a blur, and when I finally went up to bed, I shut my door, turned off the lights, and literally collapsed on the floor, like a house of cards, a completely broken man. My personal collapse evoked Dante’s powerful stanza on humiliation, repentance, and contrition, and it stung deeply:
What better can we do than prostrate fall
Before him reverent; and there confess
Humbly our faults, and pardon beg; with tears
Wat’ring the ground, and with our sighs the air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek?
A sleepless night of tossing and turning ensued, further blighted when I heard the morning newspapers snap down on the stoop outside and below the bedroom window. I knew my awful story would be there for all our friends and neighbors and parishioners and community to read.
The shame would deepen, and it did, like the incessant drip of a broken faucet. All those yet to see the story of my fall and scandal would read about it that Saturday morning, and another day of shame would commence, which I deserved, but my wife and kids did not. We could not bring ourselves to leave the house that day.
In Washington, when high-order transgression takes place in the political classes, it is de rigueur to cut off the offender. To excise the cancer. To rid him or her from the system and move forward toward the inexorable goals of politics and policy. When a staffer embarrasses the representative, or the senator, or the president, a divorce must take place leading to persona non grata status for the victimizer.
I knew I was finished. I believed my friendships would end; my phone would go silent; the e-mails would cease; the head-of-steam mantra of nearly eight years at the White House would dissipate—poof!—overnight, resulting in my own personal denouement, fall, disgrace, and destruction. The nadir had seemingly arrived, I thought, and this chapter in the book of my life would be slammed shut for good.
Only that is not what happened.
In all my pride and arrogance, grace broke through and prevailed. At the very moment I was crushed under the weight of my own sin and wrongdoing, God’s mercy materialized as if in a dream. What followed was a miracle in my life and the life of my family. The combination of grace and mercy we were about to experience shattered those Washington myths about which I had been warned. This period of twinned grace and mercy commenced on the Saturday morning after the worst day and night of my life, and it would prevail, opening up new chapters I did not deserve.
At almost exactly 10:00 a.m., our phone rang. It was my mother and father, my best friends in the world after my wife. They said they were calling to tell me they loved me. I broke down, and then apologized for disappointing, hurting, and embarrassing them. But they told me again, they loved me and forgave me. They wanted me to know they would be with Jenny and me and the boys through all the days ahead.
About fifteen minutes later I received another call, this one from a well-known, well-loved Washingtonian. I will never forget his words: “Tim, I can only imagine how tough this morning is for you. I just want you to know two things: Our friendship remains, and I want to help you and your family. Call me when you feel you can.” I thanked him but again found it tough to speak in response to his generosity of spirit.
A neighbor knocked on our door, saying she “heard some news” and just wanted to know how we were and if there was anything she might do. A church friend phoned from Florida, where she was vacationing, and asked how she might pray for me and my family. On this, the day after my crushing failure, the phones did not go silent; the e-mail flow from those who were concerned about me and my family did not cease; friends did not rush for the tall grass but rather offered to help us; colleagues did not abandon us but offered their prayers; neighbors did not shun or spurn us; our church family reached out and embraced us. My pastor, Chris Esget, asked me to come spend time with him, which I did, and his friendship and counsel were boundless.
I knew I had one more difficult apology to make. I did not want to make this apology by e-mail or phone or fax or letter; I wanted to make it in person, man to man. I knew I would be in Fort Wayne later in the year and made an appointment to meet the executive editor of The News-Sentinel, Kerry Hubartt. I betrayed him and the staff of his newspaper who were valued friends through the years, none more so than Leo Morris, the page’s editor, and Kevin Leininger, a columnist and a former editor on the opinion page. I made a plan to meet Kerry for coffee, and what ensued was yet another remarkable session of grace. I offered my categorical and unconditional apology for what I had done, and I told him I took full responsibility. I asked for his forgiveness, which he offered unconditionally.
Small demarcations of God’s grace continued to unfold in the months after I left the White House, none more important to me than when a man I knew professionally reached out to me and invited me to join him “and three other friends” for coffee “just to talk about how you are doing.” That circle of four men turned out to be the most important time of healing and confession of my life; we met every other week for a year. They counseled me, prayed with me, allowed me to open myself up in a way that made me vulnerable; but it was the greatest form of ministry and healing I have ever experienced. Though they all lived in Washington at that time, one by one, with a single exception, they moved to other parts of the country; but I remain in regular touch with them, and the bonds of our friendship are immutable.
It is easy to believe, in our age of political scandals and shadowy corruption, that there is no true generosity, no true humility, and no genuine repentance to be found in Washington. The constant cycle of scandal has made us almost irreparably cynical. We weary of the endless apologies, thinking they must be politically motivated. But my experience has been the opposite. Even at the heart of our political system, which so many of us find crippled by the machinations of power, grace broke through.