WASHINGTON – What were you thinking?
Whether they were fans of Mark Souder, or found his worldview repugnant, or were just vaguely aware that he's been their voice in Washington for nearly 16 years, Hoosiers are asking:
What were you thinking when you risked your family, your career and your reputation and embarked on a sexual affair with a married woman on your staff? How could you be so stupid?
"I don't know. Obviously if I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't have done it," Souder said in the last hours he was eligible to wear the lapel pin that signified he was among the elite in American culture – one of 535 members of Congress.
But if he was struggling to find the reasons behind what he calls his sin, Souder had no questions about other decisions he had reached:
Even if his adultery had not been exposed, Souder said, he had planned to withdraw from the re-election campaign in part from burnout and in part to let a new Republican be part of what he expects to be a large wave of GOP victories in November.
He said he reached that decision two days after the primary election when he won fewer than half the Republican votes.
But when he admitted the affair to a small circle and learned it would trigger an automatic House ethics committee inquiry, Souder decided to resign immediately rather than put himself – and the woman involved, his staff and possibly others – through the process that would surely rack up steep legal bills.
Souder initially considered toughing it out because, he said, there really was no proof of the affair. But close advisers and the chief of staff of the Republican majority leader laid out the case of the expense and agony of an ethics committee inquiry that would have drawn others into the web.
By Sunday night he saw it their way: There was no option other than to step down.
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Souder hired Tracy Meadows Jackson, now 45, in late 2004 as a part-time employee. She and her husband live in Syracuse, and Souder said Jackson – along with his wife, Diane – provided him some of the most astute insight into what people in northeast Indiana were thinking.
Jackson's job was to coordinate the commentaries that aired on a Christian radio station and the staged interviews she conducted of Souder that aired briefly on local cable-access channels and on Souder's congressional website. DVDs were mailed to interested constituents or schools.
But more than that, Souder said, Jackson was an adviser.
"Tracy and I regularly discussed any difficult decision for which I was weighing options or that she was editing and in-putting into most major statements," he said. "Working with commentaries that aired daily, she best understood how I think, added a perspective from outside the Beltway and had my best interests in mind.
"To be blunt, people who worked for me were either very smart or were soon ignored – and left. Tracy held her own with some of the smartest staff people in Washington.
"Our relationship developed because of this, not the other way around, as some have implied," he said, referring to the suggestion that he hired Jackson because she was already his girlfriend.
They became friends, Souder said. Then close friends. Then more.
One aspect of the relationship Souder absolutely refuses to talk about publicly is when the friendship became a sexual relationship. He said he will discuss that in marriage counseling and nowhere else.
"It didn't start right away. You become good friends. Then you start and stop," he said.
It ended, finally, about six months ago when the couple were in a parked car in a nature preserve in Whitley County. A Department of Natural Resources officer tapped on the window and told them to get moving.
There was no citation, no arrest. But as word leaked out, it was the incident that would end the affair and lead to Souder's resignation.
"Why would somebody who's almost 60 years old and been a congressman 16 years do something juvenile?" he said of being discovered in a car with Jackson in a public place.
"Subconsciously, was I wanting to get caught? Or was God so frustrated with me he said, 'I've had it. You're so stupid here I'm going to, in effect, out you.'
"It doesn't really matter at the end of the day. Because ultimately maybe I was getting – and she was getting – so reckless that it was a way for God to say, 'You need to get your marriages back together. You need to get your lives straightened out.' Maybe it was also guilt.
"Or maybe it was just an accident because we were really stupid, and God used it. But at the end of the day, if we get through all this, we'll be better for having gotten caught."
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Souder turned in his resignation letter, effective midnight Thursday, after hastily calling a news conference Tuesday morning in his Fort Wayne office where he admitted to an affair with a part-time staffer.
Although rumors of an affair had been whispered about in political circles for months, the news was a stunner for most of northeast Indiana.
"I sinned against God, my wife and my family by having a mutual relationship with a part-time member of my staff," he said to a roomful of reporters.
Souder stood at the podium alone, not wanting to put his wife through even more public humiliation and subject her to the clichéd photo of a supportive family standing behind a tearful fallen politician.
"The error is mine, and I should bear the responsibility," he said.
Then he returned to Washington to launch the formal procedures to resign, pack mementos and deal with the lease on his apartment.
Late Thursday afternoon, in khakis and a casual plaid shirt, Souder stood amid Hoosier memorabilia, books, knickknacks from overseas travel, photos and bric-a-brac of political history. For 2 1/2 hours he talked about his political career and the reason for its abrupt end. He never sat because "the exhaustion would take over."
On his last day as a congressman, Souder cast no votes, turned in a resignation letter to the House parliamentarian and said awkward farewells.
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Souder knows there is no end to the people he's hurt, starting with his wife and three grown children. He says he's determined to salvage those relationships.
But there are other scarred relationships he worries can't be repaired.
Aside from Republican events, there are a few community dinners and programs that he can regularly attend. One he has always tried to make a priority is the annual dinner for Wings of Hope, a Christian halfway house for women who have recently left prison.
Many were drug addicts or alcoholics, and their re-entry to the world and non-prison relationships is fragile.
Some have "friended" Souder on Facebook, and for a number of them, he is among their first friends as they gingerly go about establishing connections outside of prison. Sometimes they send him messages through Facebook.
"One of them tried to get me to go to her college graduation, but it was the night before (his son's graduation). She said, 'You said how proud you were of us to keep back in school. I made it through my degree. Will you come?'
"This is where when you're a bad example, it can really hurt," he said, swallowing tears. "That's the people I worry about most."
Souder, who served as a congressional aide for 10 years, often said he recognized the sacrifices and efforts his staff made to help him be a better congressman.
Nineteen people – not including Jackson, who resigned Tuesday – researched issues, drafted responses to constituents' letters and helped northeast Indiana residents resolve conflicts with federal agencies. They also conducted tours for Hoosiers visiting Capitol Hill, responded to reporters' questions, attended hearings when Souder had scheduling conflicts and arranged meetings with groups from Indiana.
"I am deeply humiliated that I let them all down," Souder said. "My staff has been terrific. They knocked themselves out for our beliefs, our district and for me."
He said one of his major considerations in deciding whether to step down immediately or merely remove himself from the November re-election ballot was whether the 19 employees would keep their jobs.
Souder said he calculated that Gov. Mitch Daniels would not call a special election for the selection of Souder's replacement before the Nov. 2 election because "the costs are great, the counties would object, the governor is frugal, the (congressional summer) breaks are long, the Democrats have a huge majority, and major legislation will mostly be considered after the election."
A long-delayed special election would mean the staff would be assured of jobs through early November, giving them time to look for other positions.
Another factor he weighed in deciding between resigning or withdrawing from the ballot came from the blunt talk from trusted friends and the chief of staff of the House Republican leader.
"Nobody had to threaten me. Nobody had to be belligerent. What they had to do was lay out the arguments, and they had to show me how it was also in my own interests, long term," he said.
"Every single contact with leadership, staff or (other House) members, when they realized my actions were with a staffer, they said: 'You're going to have to resign,' " he said. "If they hammered me too hard, guess what – my temperament is such you could tick me off" and he wouldn't quit. "So you better not threaten me.
"It becomes a question of if I want to teach or something at some point, how much do I want to drag through here? Why don't you be upstanding person, take the blame, get it over with and be done?"
Souder said Rep. Mike Pence, R-6th, a friend and a member of the House GOP leadership, put it this way: "Whether you get another six months' income isn't as important as the time you need with your family."
It was convincing. "I thought: 'Yes. If I'm getting out anyway, I might as well get out and restart (my life).'
"You start to look at this and say: 'This isn't going to be good for anybody, and I'm not going to put the seat at risk' " of being won by a Democrat.
"My behavior caused it. But at this particular point, if I needed to be sacrificed for the bigger cause, I'm outta here."
Ultimately, Souder said, stepping down immediately "was best for my family, best for the Republican Party nationally and locally."
* * *
The reaction to Souder's admitted affair with an employee and his resignation range from a sense of betrayal to compassion. In some cases, it's glee that Souder has gotten what they think is a well-deserved comeuppance.
Some comments he's seen posted online "are pretty brutal. Not undeserved. I'm not complaining about it. But when you read that, it takes you down again and you realize (anew) what you've done. … A lot of people are really upset at me. I can understand it."
Other people have sent him messages saying they are praying for him.
"You are stunned who is most supportive," he said, referring to people who have been critical of or frustrated with him over the years yet have called or written with prayers and sympathy.
"People who had been some harsh critics have been the most generous. … It's not like there's condoning of behavior. It's like, 'Thanks for messing up the conservative movement, but we love you anyway.' It's kind of that tone," he said.
"When you're a public figure and get crushed, you wonder whether life's worth living," he said, recalling a conversation he had with former congressman and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford shortly after Sanford's affair came to light.
"We talked about can there be another life after you get destroyed. If you're not careful, you can get really depressed. I'm not a suicidal guy for religious reasons, but I can understand how you can get really distressed. You wrecked everything."
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During a 2 1/2 -hour interview at the end of Souder's last day as a congressman, no one tapped on his door, no employees stuck their heads in his office to say goodbye to their boss.
The somber phone conversations staff members were having and the tear-streaked face of the receptionist were a sharp contrast to the first Wednesday of January 1995.
That was the day Souder, then 43, was sworn in as a member of the freshman class that would reshape Washington for decades.
Souder's jubilant family crowded into his new office along with 60 political supporters who had traveled to Washington by bus or on one of two private planes.
They were there to celebrate his victory over a three-term Democratic incumbent and to watch Souder be sworn in and then vote for the first Republican House speaker in 40 years, Newt Gingrich.
Later Souder described the moment: "I said, 'Can you actually believe this is happening and they're not taking it away? It's all been so surreal.' "
Under Gingrich's baton, the newly minted Republican majority set about to remake Washington's laws, policies and ethics.
The members of the "Republican Revolution" promised to promote family values and be tight with the public purse. Leading up to the 1994 election, Republican candidates – including Souder – signed the Contract with America that committed them to bring 10 bills to the House floor on issues such as term limits and child pornography.
The preamble of the contract pledged "to end (Congress') cycle of scandal and disgrace."
The new Republican majority developed a reputation of holding itself – and others – to a higher moral standard.
But of the 73 members of Congress new to Washington that year, a dozen have been the subject of ugly headlines in their hometown papers and on the national news. The Class of '94, as they called themselves, may not have stumbled any more or any differently from others, but the contrast between their actions and their "family values" mantra invited claims of hypocrisy.
Mark Foley resigned Congress in disgrace after lewd text messages to House pages were uncovered. Mark Sanford, after leaving Congress and becoming governor of South Carolina, was exposed as a cheat who carried on an affair with an Argentine woman whom he had traveled to meet at state government expense.
John Ensign, now in the Senate, had a widely reported affair with a campaign aide, the wife of one of his staff members. Bob Ney went to prison for accepting bribes.
Last week Souder's name went on the scandal list.
How it got there is a story Souder said he will explore in counseling as he and Diane, his wife of 36 years, rebuild their marriage.
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Souder will turn 60 this summer, the time in a campaign year when candidates typically begin a furious rush to the electoral finish line. For the first time since he was a schoolboy, Souder will be on the sidelines.
Souder is generally pleased with the group of Republicans who have said they plan to run for the nomination to replace him, and he won't mention any favorites. Souder is politically toxic. He's well aware that his public support would hurt – not help – a candidate.
He's not sure what will happen next. A self-described Type A personality, Souder is not likely to sit around his Aboite Township home with no to-do list. But whether it's writing a book or something else, he's not sure.
"What I need to do is go back to Indiana so Diane and I have time together and get on with the rest of my life.
"I'm ready to get on with my life. I'm looking forward to the rest of my life. There will be things I look back on, but, hey, I'm ready to do the next phase of my life."