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Lessons from a broken man

Indiana congressman Mark Souder's admission of adultery shows how a marriage can fall apart, while other lawmakers struggle to keep theirs together

Lessons from a broken man

Last month a broken man announced his resignation from Congress after confessing to adultery. At an Indiana press conference Mark Souder, 59, said he had "sinned against God, my wife, and my family." He committed to "repairing my marriage, earning back the trust of my family and my community, and renewing my walk with my Lord."

Since then, in more than a dozen emails to WORLD, he has offered an extraordinary look into the thinking and feeling of a principled legislator who violated his principles. "Politicians and any top professionals are skilled manipulators and smooth with words," he acknowledged: "Holding us accountable is hard." His emails reveal the agony of failure: "My sin, while forgiven, is greater in that God put me in a position of public trust, so I deserve whatever criticism I receive."

Souder and his inamorata, a part-time staffer, are both Christians who felt guilty and repeatedly talked about ending the affair as it dragged on over several years. Souder wrote in an email, "I prayed multiple times a day, sang hymns with emotion and tears, felt each time that it wouldn't happen again, read the Bible every morning. . . . So how in the world did I have a 'torrid' (which is an accurate word) many-year affair? How could I compartmentalize it so much?"

Trying to figure it out, Souder wrote, "One of the biggest dangers-which is partly why intimacy is desired-is loneliness. Loneliness doesn't mean being alone as much as it means being around hundreds of people but not really knowing them. It's a job that results in hundreds, even thousands of friends, but not much closeness." But he knows that explanation is insufficient: "Bottom line, however, is that the problem is sin. . . . The problem is getting the will subordinated to the Holy Spirit early enough that the Spirit is not squelched."

The road to this low point in Souder's life began with his election to Congress in November, 1994, as the short-lived "Republican revolution" began. Souder had just delivered a victory speech to a packed house in Fort Wayne, Ind., when someone tapped his shoulder and told him that former vice president Dan Quayle, a longtime friend and political colleague, was on the phone.

Quayle was calling to give the newly elected congressman a key piece of advice: Take your family with you to Washington. Souder didn't do it. He had promised his three children-ages 17, 15, and 6-that they could finish school in Indiana. He believed that his family would be more "anchored" there. They would be near extended family.

In the end, Souder's wife-they have been married for 35 years-and three children stayed in Indiana throughout his 15 years in office. In 2002 Souder met Tracy Jackson and her husband, Brad, at an event in his Indiana district. In 2004 she joined the staff in his Washington office part-time and worked with Souder closely on a number of issues, becoming what he called a "valued adviser." They recorded a video, now widely mocked, where they talk about the value of abstinence education.

More recently, Jackson worked in Indiana and came to Washington, according to Souder, only 15 days a year. "To carry on a multi-year sexual affair in the district and not get caught shows that where there is a will, there will be a way," Souder wrote. "I believe that it isn't just whether someone is attractive, or available, or flattering members. It is a question of how we-Members of Congress and others-can recognize that with some people we have a deeper, intense attraction. Alarm bells need to go off."

Souder doesn't believe that moving his family to Washington would have kept him from falling into sin. He argues that if his family had been in Washington, the affair back in the district would have been "easier and more constant." Over his 15 years in Congress, he said he only spent eight weekends in Washington. He notes that his children grew up with a stable community and his wife, Diane, was able to be near her parents, both of whom died while he was in office.

Others, like Dan Quayle and his wife Marilyn, argue for moving families to Washington. Some families that move to Washington, though, later switch back. When Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., took office in 1999 (filling the seat of Rep. Jon Christensen, who divorced his wife in his first term after she admitted to an affair), his wife and three young children moved to Washington so they could be together. But he found that during the week he often had late-night votes and work, and needed to travel back to Nebraska on weekends to meet with constituents. After Terry's first term his family moved back to Omaha.

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."

Souder wrote that his conscience stung every time he saw Sam McCullough, leader of a Bible study on the Hill, in the hallways of the Capitol. "The most baffling part was that I loved Diane," Souder says-but he didn't tell her about the initial "spark" and what happened thereafter. But last fall Souder and Jackson were in a parked car in a nature reserve near Fort Wayne when a Department of Natural Resources officer tapped on the window and asked them to move along. That scared Souder, and he realized he needed to come clean.

First he confessed the affair to some of his colleagues-but since Jackson was a member of Souder's staff, House rules required them to report the activity as an ethics violation. Not until last month did Souder tell his wife about the affair. The colleagues-first pattern was not unusual. In his emails to WORLD about the affair, Souder often related conversations with colleagues but rarely mentioned anything about his family members. Those family relationships, for many lawmakers, are what are neglected when they're in office and away from home.

Other politicians, like Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., have admitted to affairs and stayed in office, but Souder didn't want to slog through that and a reelection race. He hopes to save his 35-year marriage, and he hopes that "others can learn from our pain, and the agony we caused Brad [Jackson] and my wonderful wife Diane. There is no question that the toughest thing to guard is the human heart."

Email Emily Belz

'It's only getting harder'

Time in Congress saps many marriages, almost like a military deployment. Many congressional families, in choosing whether to move together to Washington, weigh their finances, personal concerns such as where their children are in school or whether they have to care for a grandmother, and how a move would come off to constituents.

The choice can lead to personal and political success-or a train wreck. One trend is clear: The daily congressional obligations that compete with family obligations aren't lessening. Until the 1970s, Congress technically adjourned for the year at the end of July in an effort to avoid Washington's smothering summers-though legislative business often carried past that date. Air conditioning has not only moved political power southward but expanded the legislative calendar: Over the last decade, lawmakers had to be present for votes an average of 252 days a year, and the last session (2007-2008) jumped to 272 days.

"It's only getting harder on family life," said Rev. Rob Schenck, who has worked in ministry on the Hill for almost 17 years and has noted that the lawmakers he knows are busier than they ever have been. "It's creating the absentee father, or now more and more the absentee mother." Worried about politicians making a career out of politics, he thinks they should impose term limits on themselves.

Schenck doesn't see lawmakers regularly depending on a church community: "They need that very badly, it makes them very vulnerable in many ways." When he talks to lawmakers about the matter, he said he tells them, "There is nothing more important than your interior life and your family life. Absolutely nothing more important, not even the business of the Congress of the United States."

Mark Souder wrote in one of his emails about how a "tiered defense" might have helped him: "Bible study, accountability partners, church, small groups, prayer, personal time, close friends who check on each other." Souder had joined the Christian Embassy Bible study when he first took office, meeting on the Hill once a week. But he said as he got busier and busier with work, he quit going.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.