For once, Rep. Trey Gowdy had no questions to ask. It was Sep. 19, 2013, well into a full day of House Oversight Committee hearings on the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. The morning had been spent on the facts gathered, then and later, by the State Department. After that the panel heard from the family members of victims—from people like Patricia Smith, whose 34-year old son Sean had been killed in the attack.
“When you were testifying, I couldn’t help but think about this dichotomy of death,” said Gowdy. “That sometimes, it walks slowly to the front of your life—it gives you time to get your affairs in order, you’ve had a good life, you have time to say goodbye to the people you love. It just walks slowly and knocks gently on the front door. And then sometimes it kick downs the door.”
Patricia Smith was transfixed. She had not come to Congress expecting to hear low country poetry about her son. But here it was, spooling out on C-Span, and here came more of it.
“I can’t offer you closure,” said Gowdy. “What I hope we can offer you is the truth. Facts. Justice. And let you do with that what you need to do as you walk down that road called grief.” He insisted, “From church, to the grocery store, to Costco—frankly, to the golf course—I am asked about Benghazi.”
Smith finally interjected, forgetting to use her microphone: “Get answers, please!” Gowdy said that he would. It was the most compelling moment of a day that the White House was largely able to ignore. And it was resonant in a way that Chairman Darrell Issa’s post-game response—to tweet a photo of empty Democratic chairs in the room, as if the other party had taken a respite to spit on some graves—was not.
This is one of the reasons that Gowdy, who’s in his second term representing the areas around Spartanburg and Greenville, South Carolina, was chosen to run the upcoming Select Committee on Benghazi. As many as 206 Republicans reportedly want roles on the committee. None have suggested that Gowdy shouldn’t run it. To conduct hearings that may lead to impeachment, Republicans needed a leader who seemed unimpeachable. They needed someone exactly unlike former Rep. Dan Burton, who never lived down a demonstration, involving a watermelon and a gun, of how Vince Foster’s “murder” might have gone down.
“When you’re shooting a watermelon you’re probably going too far,” says South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “I don’t think Trey is going to have a demonstration in his backyard about how Benghazi happened. I’ve known him for years. If you ask any lawyer or judge in South Carolina, Democrat or Republican, he’d get A-plus marks. You’d find that to be a universal assessment.”
That’s barely hyperbole. In 2010, Gowdy got to Congress by humiliating Rep. Bob Inglis in a Republican primary. Inglis, panicked over the damage done when he voted for the Wall Street bailout, attacked Gowdy, and charged him with ethics violations.
“We had a number of joint appearances and debates,” Inglis says now. “Those were not, necessarily, his finest moments, and his work on Benghazi will be a better moment. I assume it will be substantive. A campaign in the midst of the great recession is not necessarily a substantive discussion. Trey is a very capable guy and I think he’ll do a fine job with a special investigation, because certainly he’s suited for the task.”
All is forgiven. It’s the same with Holmon Gossett, the man Gowdy defeated in the 2000 circuit prosecutor race that started him in politics. “I’d have liked to have won,” says Gossett, “but we started as friends and we ended as friends. I noticed that he was assigned to that Benghazi committee, and I think it’s very fortunate to have somebody of that caliber to have those skills and background.”
That background began when Gowdy was 28, bored, and working at a private practice. He got a phone call, “right after lunch” one day, telling him that a family friend had been shot dead.