Five days after announcing he was leaving Congress at the end of his term, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy walked his dogs, Jury and Bailiff, in the rain outside his home in Spartanburg.
Minutes later the 53-year-old chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, who led a controversial investigation into the attack on the U.S. compound at Benghazi, said he had no problems in walking away from the congressional limelight.
In fact, Gowdy told The Greenville News, he is through with politics at any level.
“When you leave you have to leave,” he said, “and I am at total peace with that.”
It wasn’t so much disillusionment with Beltway politics, he said, as a realization that the sand in the hourglass was falling and he had been in public life “enough.”
Gowdy said his epiphany came in December, as he watched his daughter fill out an application to the state bar and his son complete an application to law school on the same table they once played with Legos and fought over Crayons.
“I have been in public life almost every day of their lives,” he said. “It’s the one commodity no matter how hard you try or how much money you have, you can’t get more of it. Six years in the U.S. attorney’s office, 10 as the (solicitor) and eight in Congress — it just struck me as enough.”
Not that he will leave Congress or its prominent stage anytime soon.
Gowdy’s term ends in January. He remains a member of the House Intelligence Committee and just helped draft a controversial memo critical of the process used to obtain approval for surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser. He said his Oversight Committee likely will look into the sexual-abuse scandal involving U.S. women’s gymnastics.
“I’ll be there until the last vote on the last day,” he said.
Gowdy’s friends in Congress and in the Upstate, some of whom were surprised at his announcement, say he will be missed.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, whom Gowdy describes as a close personal friend, said he cherished Gowdy's self-deprecating humor, his "positive, uplifting direction" and his wisdom.
"I think it's a loss for the nation and a gain for his family," the Charleston Republican said of Gowdy's departure. "What Congress will miss about Trey is he is the go-to person to cross-examine witnesses. He has a nose for the truth and solid instincts as a prosecutor in search of that truth."
Gowdy "was a guy you could count on, who had a great sense of humor, who could make fun of himself and give you wise advise because he was anchored."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, the Laurens Republican who entered Congress the same year as Gowdy, said Gowdy's legal skills will be missed.
"Trey was the right person at the right time for Congress to do what he was trained to do, which is to interrogate a witness and lead them down a path they really didn't want to go down," he said.
But Harold Watson Gowdy never burned with political ambition.
The son of a doctor with no family ties to a practice in law, Gowdy majored in history at Baylor University in Texas. He describes himself as a “history major who knew no history,” which he said limited his options.
Gowdy said he talked his father into loaning him the money to attend law school at the University of South Carolina, where he said he was “lost” for his first year.
“It would not have surprised me when my first-semester grades came back if they politely asked me to go do something else for a living,” he said.
Instead, he “slowly but surely figured it out,” and by graduation became a member of the Wig and Robe, a law school honor society.
From there he clerked for U.S. District Judge Ross Anderson for two years, where he "got to watch phenomenal lawyers.” His time with Anderson, he said, “was tough love.”
“He does not have the gift of encouragement,” Gowdy said of the judge. Nonetheless, Gowdy enjoyed his time as clerk so much that his daughter’s middle name is Anderson.
Beattie Ashmore, a Greenville lawyer and friend of Gowdy, said he met Gowdy at the U.S. attorney’s office, where Gowdy worked after his clerkship ended.
“He’s very smart, very hard-working and very driven,” he said.
Ashmore and Gowdy worked on a drug task force together and tried cases of all types in federal court.
Gowdy said he was drawn to the federal prosecutor’s job because he liked being on the side of law enforcement and was lured by the notion of working alongside the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Secret Service.
“It takes about 25 trials to figure out whether you are any good at it or not,” he said. “At some point, I just decided I loved it, and I would rather be in a courtroom than anywhere in the world.”
After six years, Gowdy decided he was ready to run for the top prosecutor’s job in Spartanburg County against the long-time incumbent.
“I told him he was crazy to run, but he did and he won, and that tells you a lot about Trey,” Ashmore said.
There he paired with Barry Barnette, who had been a county judge before Gowdy hired him as his deputy solicitor. The duo tried a string of murder cases they did not lose, including multiple death-penalty trials.
“You won’t see a more gifted person in a courtroom,” said Barnette, now solicitor. “He was a natural.”
Rick Vieth, a Spartanburg lawyer who battled Gowdy in court when Gowdy was a prosecutor, described Gowdy as well-prepared, competitive and fair.
"You knew you were going to have a battle when you went in there," he said.
The scientist and the artist
Barnette, a former science teacher, said Gowdy called him the “scientist” because of his love of scientific evidence, and he said Gowdy considered himself the “artist.”
“He was the big-picture guy, what he wanted to present to the jury,” he said. “I was the nuts and bolts.”
Along the way, Gowdy said some homicide detectives presented him with a pink seersucker suit. Not knowing if the present was in jest, he began wearing it. In a profile of him several years later, Rolling Stone magazine described Gowdy as “Atticus Finch in a pink seersucker.”
Gowdy’s reward for his courtroom work, he said, was the gratitude of victims' families.
But then came a string of murders and the separate cases of two young girls killed.
The cases rocked Gowdy to his core. His own daughter insisted on sleeping in her parents’ bedroom at the time.
Even now, his voice cracks when talking about the girls’ deaths.
“You don’t leave this stuff at work,” he said. “You bring it home, and your kids are exposed to it.”
One of the cases was that of an 8-year-old girl shot four times and killed by a man whose estranged wife was dating the child’s father. Prosecutors called it a revenge killing. Gowdy decided to seek the death penalty. Barnette eventually tried the case, and a jury sentenced the man to death.
On Mother’s Day of 2009, Gowdy’s mother and wife sat him down and talked to him about changing his line of work. He thought about the state attorney general's office but decided it was too close to being a solicitor.
“I know I needed to leave for family and faith reasons,” he said. “I know I needed to stop seeing the personification of evil on a daily basis.”
So he decided to run against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis for the 4th District seat in Congress, which covers Greenville, Spartanburg and other areas of the Upstate.
Gowdy won, joining three other freshmen congressmen from the state: Duncan, Scott and U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney. The three showed Gowdy the ropes, he said, since he lacked any legislative experience.
He eventually moved onto various committees, including the House Oversight Committee, where his interrogation of Internal Revenue Service officials over the targeting of Tea Party members drew attention. The House eventually held IRS Commissioner Lois Lerner in contempt.
When then-House Speaker John Boehner wanted to appoint a panel to look into the deaths of four Americans after an 2012 attack at the U.S. consulate offices in Benghazi, Libya, he picked Gowdy to chair the committee.
Some conservatives, hoping the investigation would prove the undoing of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, lionized Gowdy. He was talked about as a candidate for majority leader or speaker.
But Gowdy found the arena of a congressional investigation in the glare of television lights far different than that of a courtroom.
“The art of persuasion matters in court; it doesn’t matter in Congress,” he said. “There are no rules of evidence. You can say ‘I heard’ with no evidentiary support. It’s not even apples and oranges; it’s apples and airplanes.”
Gowdy’s committee was thorough. The panel’s mission lasted years, in part because its requests for records were not always met in a timely fashion.
The eventual and much-anticipated testimony of Clinton proved anti-climatic for those who hoped Gowdy’s interrogation would somehow prove some personal complicity. Some who wanted Clinton’s scalp turned their anger on Gowdy.
Donald Trump, then running for president, labeled Gowdy as “Benghazi loser” in a December 2015 post on Twitter. Trump’s followers tweeted worse things.
Duncan said he doesn't think the results of the hearings were what Gowdy or many in the country wanted.
"Stonewalling by elements within the Obama administration made it tough for him," he said.
Gowdy said conservative groups were angry at him for not meeting with them. He had criticized some members of Congress for talking about the hearings and what they hoped would be its intention — going after Clinton.
“Fairness has a really small constituency when it comes to politics,” Gowdy said.
The final report, he said, actually mentions Clinton’s name far less than the Democrats’ report on the investigation.
“I’m proud of the product,” Gowdy said of the report. “The process was miserable.”
One outgrowth of the investigation, however, was news that Clinton had used a private email server to send State Department email. More troubling for many, Gowdy says, were her explanations in an initial press conference.
“Almost all of it wound up being demonstrably false,” Gowdy said. “I think people are willing to forgive you for errors of judgment. I don’t think people have much patience with being misled.”
Gowdy’s changing hairstyles have drawn attention, too.
"GQ" and "The Daily Show" have cited the congressman’s hair, with "GQ" labeling some of his styles the “Draco Malfoy,” a “boy band faux hawk” and a “modified mullet.”
Gowdy notes the only person who has not voiced an opinion over the years about his hair has been his wife.
His move will lead to more time at home with her. Gowdy has not been secret about his problems with Washington and its politics or about his preference to return to Spartanburg.
While he holds fairness as a high virtue, the modern political system does not reward it, he said.
“We are fair to one another in our interpersonal dealings,” he said, “but that fairness is not rewarded politically. It’s hyperbole. It’s who can say the most provocative thing and be better known. That’s the modern-day political system.”
The first texts he received after announcing he would leave, he said, were from progressive Democrats.
“Lots and lots of us get along privately, but it’s not seen publicly,” he said. “I’m not sure either one of those members of Congress could say publicly what they said privately without suffering political consequences.”
Sen. Scott said Gowdy was someone who built "healthy friendships" across the aisle. "He is very well respected."
Scott said Gowdy labored with the polarizing political environment and the struggle to get things done.
"Too often," he said, "things seem to be a vicious cycle where very little is accomplished and a lot of folks are negatively impacted, reputations are tarnished, and that's just hard to be part of."
Gowdy said he “cannot imagine the fact pattern under which” he would return to politics. He likes both Scott and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, arguing they are better at their jobs than he ever could be.
He said he has zero interest in the governor’s race.
Ashmore says Gowdy has a love-hate relationship with politics. He loves talking to groups, running a campaign and competing but doesn’t enjoy other parts.
Gowdy himself said he never had the ambition to climb into House leadership roles. Crossing the country to raise money is not his thing, he said. Last week, he told CBS’ "Face The Nation" that he was a “lousy politician.”
“I see multiple sides of the same issue,” he said. “The fact that someone disagrees with me does not make me challenge their love of the country. It doesn’t make me believe they are corrupt. I don’t think the end justifies the means.”
He has yet to talk personally with Trump. He said he doesn’t need anything from him, and if he has a question he contacts Mulvaney, now White House budget director.
He said Scott talked him out of leaving two years ago. More recently, he said, Graham talked to him about taking a federal appellate judgeship that was coming open and that Scott would have worked to secure. Gowdy was not interested. He said he enjoys meeting people and having some control over what cases he becomes involved in, whereas judges’ roles are reactionary.
So he plans to start a private practice and is interested in focusing on investigations of a civil nature, such as corporate compliance.
He has written a book with Scott that he says will be published in April. Gowdy said the book looks at unlikely relationships, such as theirs, people you might not put together but forge a bond anyway.
“I wanted Tim to write a book,” Gowdy said. “His grandfather picked cotton, and then a generation later he’s picking out a seat in the United States Senate, which I think is an incredible testimony to our state and to him. But he didn’t want to do it by himself because he’s modest.”
Scott said Gowdy wanted him to write an autobiography, but he was not as interested in writing a book as Gowdy was.
"But he convinced me that the two of us doing a book together would be a constructive project, that we would get to spend a lot of time getting to know each other's stories better," he said. "We thought perhaps the country could benefit from a real conversation between two guys with very different backgrounds."
The idea, he said, was to show that if the pair could bridge their differences, "the country could see the power of friendship in overcoming a polarized society."
Gowdy said his wife read the book and cried. “But,” he quipped, “she won’t say if that’s because of the writing style or the content.”
He said the book may not be commercially successful, “but it will be cathartic for us.”