Cover Story

Lessons from a broken man

"Lessons from a broken man" Continued...

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

Freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and his wife Julie are among those who decided against a move. Julie and their three children (ages 17, 14, and 9) live in Alpine, Utah, two time zones away from Washington. Chaffetz sees his Washington deployment as temporary. "It's not a lifetime appointment," he told me as he was getting off his flight from Utah in Washington. He sleeps on a cot in his office on weeknights and flies home almost every weekend: "If you're doing this right, you should be back in your district as much as possible." The downsides are quickly apparent: Before taking office, he coached his son's soccer team, but last year his daughter started playing and he never saw a game.

House and Senate members tend to make different choices. House members have more demanding schedules and uncertain futures than senators, who have six-year terms and can settle in Washington more comfortably than House members who face reelection every two years. House members travel back and forth to their district most weekends to meet with constituents, clocking local time that the two-year election cycle demands. The average age of a senator is 62, while House members are a younger set, often with school-age children.

Mike Pence, R-Ind., took the Quayles' advice and moved his family (with three children then under the age of 8) after winning election in 2000. Later, when Mike and Karen Pence's fourth-grade son broke his collarbone on the playground at school, the congressman was able to come to the emergency room straight from Capitol Hill. Karen was composed until he walked into the room, then melted. "I realized, I'm really glad he's here and I don't have to do this all by myself," she recalled.

Karen Pence talked with me about how she sits down with her husband's scheduler to scrutinize school calendars so they can map out days that Mike needs to be available to his family: "Not only do my kids need Mike, Mike needs the kids." She doesn't prescribe a Washington move for everyone: "We were blessed that our kids were at an age where they could move easily. . . . Every family has to make its own choice."

Some legislators fill their Capitol Hill offices with family pictures, not only to impress constituents but to remind themselves. When Mike Pence took office in 2001, Karen installed a red landline phone in his Capitol Hill office-and only she knew the number. It's a bit of a gimmick now, since she can connect with him on his BlackBerry much more easily, but the phone sticks out as a reminder.

When Souder entered Congress in 1995, he and two other Indiana Republicans who took office in 1995 had the benefit of a discussion with Rep. Dan Burton, who had been in Congress over a decade. Burton would confess publicly in 1998 that he had fathered a child out of wedlock back in 1983, but then that news was private. He told the congressmen about his failings and said, according to Souder, "Do not mess up your life like I did mine."

Warnings of that kind did not keep Souder from messing up, and adultery remains a virus among both Republicans and Democrats. Pledges of probity also don't mean much: A dozen of the 73 freshman Republicans elected in 1994 became involved in extramarital affairs or divorces, a record that mocked the new Republican leadership's pledge to end Congress' "cycle of scandal and disgrace."

Some affairs and marital problems had sprouted before Washington: In 1999, Rep. Bob Barr's ex-wife accused him of having had an affair while they were still married, back in the 1980s. Other problems had a decidedly Washington trademark: Rep. Steve LaTourette divorced his wife and married his mistress, his former chief of staff. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich had an affair with a committee staffer whom he later married, his third wife.

Souder, watching some of his colleagues' marriages suffer, complained that Democrats were purposefully spreading rumors about Republicans' marital problems. He told the Associated Press in 1995: "Because we have a class that is more open in talking about religious faith, people just assume the worst." In 1998, Souder voted against three of the four impeachment charges against President Bill Clinton because he thought the president behaved immorally but not impeachably.

In 2002, though, Souder met Tracy Jackson. One of his emails observed, "I felt a spark. . . . Closeness bred more closeness." Guilt followed, then short-lived repentance, then more encounters, in Washington and back in the Indiana district. The affair became something he didn't feel he could control, but he acknowledges that such a feeling "is no excuse: God expects you to control those leanings by providing us with the Holy Spirit within us."


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