Trey Gowdy’s emotions sometimes bubble disconcertingly close to the surface, but unlike many members of the political class, he is not all surface. At a breakfast four years ago, the South Carolina Republican had tears in his eyes as he explained when he would leave Congress: after Tim Scott, a Republican congressman who had been appointed to the Senate in 2013 when Jim DeMint resigned, had been elected in his own right. This, Gowdy said at that breakfast, would close the circle of his state’s history.
Scott, an African-American, was born in 1965, 44 days after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The 1960 census had recorded South Carolina as 34.8 percent African-American. It was only about 27 percent African-American when Scott was elected in 2014 to complete DeMint’s unfinished term, and was elected to a full term in 2016. So, at the end of 2018, Gowdy, after eight years representing northern South Carolina’s booming Greenville-Spartanburg area, will put Washington in his rearview mirror. The nation’s capital will be duller because of the departure of him and his myriad hairstyles. He will not miss it but will miss his weekly dinners with Scott, almost always at the same table in the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican hangout.
A former prosecutor, Gowdy ran for Congress in part to get a respite from things that prosecutors must stare at unblinkingly. There was the 9-year old girl with cerebral palsy who was beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend. Gowdy’s eyes are moist as he says that the girl’s picture is on his desk in his congressional office. Staring down such evils is, he says, particularly arduous for someone like him, because “if you’ve got no faith, you’ve got nothing to lose.” He, a devout Christian, thought it was “time to do something else.”
When he first ran for public office, a friend congratulated him for being up to 20 in polls that showed him losing 80-20. When in 2010 he ran for Congress against a six-term Republican incumbent, he surfed into office on that year’s tea party wave. And he was immediately “miserable,” until he began his friendship with Scott.
As a member of three key committees (Oversight and Government Reform, Judiciary, and Intelligence), Gowdy has been at the — sometimes he has been the — epicenter of controversies. These have included Benghazi (honestly, do you remember what that was about? Didn’t think so), the two parties’ dueling memos about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the Mueller investigation. When his fellow Republicans on the Intelligence Committee faulted the FBI, CIA and NSA for concluding “with high confidence” that Russia preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, Gowdy said that the committee’s own evidence showed that Russian involvement in the election was “motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm her candidacy or undermine her presidency had she prevailed.” Gowdy has never met Trump and might leave Washington without having done so.
Politics as he envisioned it would be a vocation in which participants asked themselves: What cause do I believe in strongly enough that I am willing to lose for it? Now, Gowdy says, the dominant question is: What am willing to do to win? At 53, he says he wants to go somewhere “where facts matter.” So, he probably will not teach in a university.
South Carolina has been punching above its weight recently. Former Gov. and now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, daughter of immigrants from India, is disproving the plausible — until she came along — rule that no one could have sustained transactions with the current president without being diminished. Former South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney is director of the Office of Management and Budget. James Clyburn, the most senior member of the state’s otherwise all-Republican House delegation, is assistant minority leader, the third-ranking position in the Democrats’ House leadership. It is difficult to say how, but it is also difficult to doubt that, the social soil of South Carolina has something to do with the state’s success in seeding national politics with talent.
Gowdy and Scott have co-authored a book (“Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country”) that is dedicated to one of Scott’s grandfathers and one of Gowdy’s grandmothers: “In the segregated age in which they lived, the two never met. But two generations later, their grandsons became the best of friends.”