This week began with the White House desperate to get Bob Woodward’s new book about Iraq out of the news. Turns out the damage controllers had to look no farther than the U.S. House and the chairman of the little-known committee on Missing and Exploited Children. Probably not the solution they were seeking, but there they found Mark Foley of Florida, a closeted gay congressman, possibly alcoholic, who fashioned himself as the champion of child protection and leading defender of children on the Internet. Foley also was using his computer to troll for contacts with pages, the 16-year-old high school juniors who come to Washington as wards of Congress, dress in gray and navy uniforms, and run errands for the members.
When news first broke about the salacious e-mails, Foley’s office characterized them as “entirely appropriate,” saying their release was part of a smear campaign by Foley’s opponent. White House press secretary Tony Snow brushed them aside as “simply naughty,” and others characterized them merely as “overly friendly.” Then the text of additional e-mails reached the reading public, and damage control collapsed. We learned that Foley was telling one page that he’d like to slip off his shorts, and asking, “Do I make you a little horny?” In another instance he stepped away from a House vote to share Internet sex with a page.
On the Web site of ABC News, which broke the story, respondents posted their opinions, and it became clear that Americans have a visceral, and totally negative, understanding of this kind of scandal. “Did he use his position of advocacy on the issue to stay perversely close to the subject matter without setting off alarms?” asked one.
Foley resigned his seat, the nameplate was removed from his office and he checked into a rehab center for alcohol and other emotional problems, though aides and friends said they doubted that he was an alcoholic. Speaking through his lawyer, Foley acknowledged that his principal emotional problem seems to be that he is gay.
Republicans, protectors of family values, have a terminally difficult time dealing with homosexuality unless they are using it for political advantage. In 2004, gay marriage referenda were filed in more than a dozen states to pump up the conservative, religious base, and the GOP may have won the presidency by narrowly carrying Ohio with this tactic. Otherwise, it is very difficult to be gay if you are a Republican politician. Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay former editor of The New Republic, said, “I was told (Foley) was gay, closeted, afraid and, therefore, screwed-up.”
t turns out that many of Mark Foley’s House colleagues suspected he was gay, and Foley was warned about earlier, less salacious, e-mails to pages. But the House leadership did nothing further, and that has put a cat amongst the pigeons. GOP members are demanding that anyone in the leadership who knew of Foley’s activities and did nothing must resign. Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, dripping with ambition, says it was entirely the responsibility of Speaker Dennis Hastert. Hastert now is fighting to keep his job and Boehner is measuring the drapes in the Speaker’s office.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich insists that the leadership could not have been tougher on Foley or they might be perceived as anti-gay. Anti-gay? The Republicans? Heaven forefend! Gingrich, like so many others, seems to grasp no distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia.
Meanwhile, Foley’s lawyer also tossed into the mix the fact that the congressman, a Roman Catholic who attended Catholic schools, was abused by a clergyman while in his early teens. The attorney refused to specify whether this was a minister, a priest, a rabbi or an imam. Leaving us to guess?
It seems that the crown of moral authority has slipped a bit in the GOP. The party that has used family values to political advantage for years now appears to have allowed a predator who posed a danger to minors to operate for months while the leadership remained silent.
One House Republican suggested that the page program be discontinued. This solution is more or less like saying that the Catholic Church should solve its problem of pederast priests by eliminating the altar boys.