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Claude Allen
Barry Gutierrez/Genesis
Claude Allen

A second chance

Q&A | Humbled former Bush adviser Claude Allen sees his past as a gift that's helping him make the most of his future

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

Claude Allen in 2005 was on the ascent, serving as President George W. Bush's top domestic policy adviser. Early in 2006, arrested for shoplifting, he met with profound humiliation. Since then he has kept an utterly low profile. This is his first interview in more than six years.

Basic facts: Born in 1960, born again during your freshman year at the University of North Carolina. What sowed the seeds for your coming to Christ? The summer before my freshman year because I began to ask a lot of questions about my purpose in life. I read an article, "Lessons in History Ignored." It spoke about how the Roman Empire was not destroyed by external enemies but rather by internal moral decay. That made my soul ripe for the gospel.

After college you moved onward and upward: Congressional staff, law school, Court of Appeals clerk, big Washington law firm. Then you ran Virginia's Health and Human Services agency, became second-in-command at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and moved to the White House. I turned down that White House position twice because, with a wife and four children, I was not comfortable with the nature of that job and the demands of it. Finally I said yes.

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You started work at the White House in 2005 just when Katrina hit New Orleans. Great devastation, at a time when the president and all the senior White House staff were out in Texas. I had just come back from a trip to Alaska and Asia, and when Katrina hit, I was asked to take charge of the administration's response.

Is that the first time you ever dealt with hurricane realities? No. Several years before that time, at HHS, I discussed with the mayor of New Orleans and the emergency director what they would do in an emergency situation. They told me of their plan to move people into the Superdome. I discouraged them.

But they didn't change the plan. No. After Katrina hit a colleague of mine called from the Superdome. They were in crisis.

And you were also in crisis? I felt responsible because I didn't persuade them well enough not to do what they ended up doing. I began to have disruptive nightmares. A gentleman sitting on a lawn chair in front of the Superdome. He had died several days before and had a sign on him, "I've died. Please bury me." That image continued to haunt me. I became angry at God, very bitter.

That's when you started acting bizarrely? On the way home, I would stop by the local mall and wander around for hours to clear my head. On one of these occasions, I picked up a $500 Bose stereo at Target, put it in my cart, took it, bought it, stuck it in my car.

Then you decided you didn't need to spend that money, and … I went back in the store, got another Bose off the shelf, took it with my receipt to customer service, got a refund for it, left the store, went back to my car.

And then… I put the Bose in my car back in my cart, rolled it back in the store, left it there, and left.

This makes no sense. You were shoplifting, but not profiting from it? I could never go home with anything, because my wife would ask questions and I realized that.

But you were breaking the law. Absolutely.

How many times did this happen? Three times. Looking back, there were triggers: moving to a new house, issues within my family, something that occurred in the White House. The third time it happened, I realized something was seriously wrong. Then Christmas came along. I thought I could hold on.

Jan. 2, 2006: A Target security agent apprehends you. At that point did you talk with your wife and people in your church? Yes, and with the White House. At this time there was no charge. I was going to leave my job in the administration and get on with my life. But God did not intend for me to get away that easily.

As you found out on March 9. I was supposed to appear in court and pay a fine for a shoplifting misdemeanor. But the prosecutors decided to change the offense to a felony. I was handcuffed, put into a cell. A reporter was tipped off that this was going to happen. It all became very public. … when I got home there's media everywhere.

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