Is Foley Truly the Worst Scandal in Washington?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
I know the election is just a month away and the Democrats need every vote, but... Did Mark Foley really deserve to be drawn and quartered for engaging in lubricious instant messaging with male former Congressional pages?
Foley's advances were creepy and disturbing and bordered on sexual harassment, to say nothing of bad taste -- I'd definitely put "I always use lotion and the hand" in the Too Much Information category. But given that by law Senate pages must be 16 years old or more, and that 16 is the legal age of consent in Washington (and most states), to call him a "child molester" (Tucker Carlson on MSNBC) and "child predator" (various pundits) seems rather severe. Almost as severe as, um, calling Bill Clinton's affair with the 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky "vile" and voting to impeach him. Which, as it happens, Representative Foley did. "It's more sad than anything else," Foley went on, prophetically, "to see someone with such potential throw it all down the drain."
Foley has resigned and entered rehab: According to him, it was the drink typing, or maybe the results of having been molested by a clergyman in his youth. His fellow Republicans prefer their usual suspect: liberals. Denny Hastert claims the revelations are a Democratic dirty trick. Rush Limbaugh says liberals are the real hypocrites ("In their hearts and minds and their crotches, they don't have any problem with what Foley did, they've defended it over the years"). Which seems ungrateful, given how many liberals wrote compassionately about Rush's addiction to illegally obtained Oxycontin, despite Rush himself having urged draconian punishments for drug addicts. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council blames "pro-homosexual political correctness."Matt Drudge indicts the teenage "beasts" themselves: "The kids are egging the Congressman on!" They're probably liberals, too.
Unlike White House press secretary Tony Snow ("naughty e-mails"), I don't minimize Foley's behavior. It's wrong for middle-aged men to come on to teenagers, even if they're of legal age and even if, as some of the IM exchanges suggest, the young person seems willing to play ("with a towel you can just wipe off and go"). Let the kids fool around with each other. But there's something unseemly about the festival of ritual humiliation: You'd think he was raping 5-year-olds, not exchanging dirty IMs with high school seniors who could, after all, just log off or not reply. The blasts of indignation sweeping the blogosphere seem awfully opportunistic: "deranged pedophile," "sicko," "children at risk."
As the Republicans are eager to remind us, Dems are no angels: Gerry Studds slept with a page in 1973, ignored the censure of his colleagues and kept his seat until he retired in 1997; Mel Reynolds had sex with an underage female campaign worker, went to prison and was pardoned by President Clinton; Barney Frank -- and we love Barney Frank -- unknowingly housed his boyfriend's prostitution service in his apartment and was re-elected all the same. And don't forget former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy, the proud gay American, now promoting his tell-all as part of his healing process. Men with power: It's not a pretty sight.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, they are ill positioned to make the everybody-does-it defense. Their whole shtick is that they're the community pillars, and the Dems are tramps and perverts. Now the image is blowing up in their faces, and too bad for them. Nobody forced them to get in bed with the Christian fundamentalists, who think homosexuality is evil and disgusting and sex outside marriage God's biggest preoccupation. If the family-values right wants Hastert's head on a platter, it serves him right. Live by Jesus, die by Jesus.
The Washington Monthly 's Kevin Drum thinks Foley will sweep the Dems back into power: Financial corruption like the Abramoff affair is complicated and boring, but everyone understands sexual shenanigans. Perhaps, but are the voters really so brain-dead? Is there no point trying to whip them up into a frenzy about some outrage that actually matters? Like, oh, Bush's refusal to declassify the full National Intelligence Estimate documenting how the Iraq War has created more terrorists. Or Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent -- so much so that Senator Frist said he wants to put them in the government. Have we given up on habeas corpus, just voted away with the help of twelve Democratic Senators and twelve House Dems, including Sherrod Brown, often praised in this magazine? It would be interesting if someone mentioned the record Foley compiled on the rare occasions when he zipped up his pants and went to work -- like his support for that stupid 700-mile fence along the Mexican border, and for denying public education to illegal immigrant children. Now that's what I call child molestation.
It shows you how hapless and shallow the Democrats are that they find so little electoral joy in a principled coherent challenge to Republican rule. Instead, we get tactical theatrics over whatever comes down the pike: last month gas prices, this week Foley. I see why the Democrats feel they have to do it: They're too compromised, the contests are too close and the discourse has been dumbed down for so long, it takes something simple and splashy to get people's attention. But it doesn't say much for the party -- or for the rest of us, either.
Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.