It was late September 2015, and I was sitting in an editor's office at Rolling Stone in New York City. He wanted politics ideas from me. I tossed out several, they each fell flat. As I scrambled to think of more, a name popped into my head: Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina congressman who chairs the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Gowdy had helped uncover Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, making her summer of 2015 one to forget. Gowdy's discovery transformed him, overnight, into a conservative hero. He was billed as a future majority leader or House speaker. "Hillary's tormenter-in-chief," I called him. I got the assignment.
But Washington can be a strange, unpredictable place. In a span of weeks after I landed the assignment, Gowdy went from vanquisher—"The Guy Who Could Beat Hillary (Isn't Even Running for President)," GQ titled its story on Gowdy—to vanquished. As you'll see below, what began as a profile of a conservative "It" thing turned into a Washington parable, the story of a reluctant politician's rapid rise and even steeper fall. My first story for Rolling Stone.
The Endless Trial of Trey Gowdy's Benghazi Committee
Twenty months, $5 million, and one Michael Bay movie later, the GOP's Hillary slayer is still searching for answers
Rolling Stone | January 14, 2016
"A merciful god," Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina tells me, "would only make you do this once." This, in Gowdy's telling, is the experience of squaring off against the vaunted Clinton juggernaut. It's early November, and I've caught up with Gowdy, the chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, a few weeks after the committee's eight-hour televised grilling of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was billed as a potentially fatal event for her presidential campaign — with Gowdy as her slayer. But in one of the grand twists of the primary season, Clinton came out on top. Political observers hailed her performance as "poised" and "presidential." Her poll numbers spiked. Gowdy, on the other hand, looked defensive, at times desperate, matched up against Clinton. Of which, he now says, "Nothing can prepare you."
When Gowdy took charge of the Benghazi committee in the spring of 2014, there had already been seven previous House and Senate investigations, plus an internal review by the State Department, into the circumstances surrounding the September 2012 attacks on a U.S. consulate and a CIA compound in Libya that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. All the evidence pointed to a terrorist attack, rather than the work of an angry mob, as members of the Obama administration initially claimed. But those same reports — some signed off on by senior House Republicans — debunked various conspiracy theories, including the existence of a so-called stand-down order to CIA operatives responding to the Benghazi attacks, that might have held the White House or Clinton culpable for the lives lost.
Twenty months, more than $5 million, and one Michael Bay movie later, Gowdy is still searching for the damning evidence that might prove Clinton's ineptitude. We meet in a spare conference room near his office on Capitol Hill. Seated in a leather chair, sporting a day's worth of silver stubble and a bottle of Diet Coke, he looks relaxed yet worn down, self-deprecating one moment and full of pathos the next. He is lean with a long narrow face, a penetrating stare, and a frosty head of hair that changes in cut and style and inspiration seemingly by the month. (GQ devoted an entire slideshow to Gowdy's various looks — the Keith Urban, the Emma Watson, the Draco Malfoy.)
His district, South Carolina's fourth congressional, is one of the most rightwing constituencies in America. It's home to the evangelical Bob Jones University, where students can't drink, dance or wear jeans. A local state senator named Lee Bright has called for making enforcement of the Affordable Care Act punishable by a year in jail and still endorses South Carolina breaking off from the Union. "If at first you don't secede," Bright once quipped, "try again."
On this terrain, Harold Watson Gowdy III, who is 51, remains a beloved figure — he won his last election with 85 percent of the vote. At a diner in the city of Spartanburg, not far from where Gowdy grew up and now lives, one resident described the congressman to me as a "white knight" and a "Boy Scout in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah." Whatever happens on the national stage, Gowdy's congressional seat is his for as long as he wants it.
But Gowdy was supposed to do so much more. He was supposed to be Hillary Clinton's tormenter-in-chief, the man who could inflict more damage on the former first lady's presidential hopes than Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders combined — until he padded her poll numbers. He was supposed to be a Tea Party icon — until he started making friends in Congress, from diehard conservatives like Ohio's Jim Jordan to Democrats and progressives like Vermont's Peter Welch and California's Zoe Lofgren. "This is wildly unpopular to say," he tells me, "but for a body that is at ten percent of public approval polls, what I tell folks back home is, 'You'd be shocked at how many good people are here on both sides of the aisle.'" He was supposed to be a future leader in the Republican Party — until he made it clear to colleagues that he couldn't be less interested in twisting arms and raising money. "I lack every quality that you would want in that person," he says.
This week's release of 13 Hours, the new Michael Bay movie about the Benghazi attacks, which centers on a group of CIA contractors disobeying the disputed stand-down order, could've been a victory lap for Gowdy. (He hasn't seen the movie but says he "may at some point.") But the Select Committee on Benghazi is still many months from completion, and Gowdy now talks like a man with one eye on the exit. He complains privately and publicly about the lack of action in Washington. Dick Harpootlian, an acquaintance from the South Carolina legal community, recalls Gowdy telling him a few years ago, "'This just isn't for me. It's just not a productive use of my time or life." His dream job, according to friends, is to be a federal judge, but in person he jokes about moving back to South Carolina to hawk silver or reverse mortgages. I ask him if he ever regrets running for Congress in the first place. "Yeah, I do," he says. "I do."