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The former congressman’s true crime

10/5/2006 3:57:31 PM

House Speaker Dennis Hastert took office in the wake of one Republican sex scandal, and it looks like he might lose his chair in the wake of another.

In 1998, Bob Livingston of Louisiana was about to succeed Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. But then it came to light that Livingston, who was among those leading the charge to impeach Bill Clinton for the president’s tawdry Oval Office frolics with 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky, was himself an adulterer. The hypocrisy was too much even for the Republicans.

In its moment of discomfort, the GOP turned to Hastert, a former high-school wrestling coach who, while just short of being a blockhead, was certainly amiable enough. Hastert had the immediate virtue of not being a controversial firecracker, like Gingrich, or a nut-case showboater like Livingston, who was once captured on video taking target practice by exploding a watermelon and explaining that he imagined it was Clinton’s head.

Those were the days when the Republicans had a certain style. And Hastert had the advantage of being sponsored by one of the party’s most stylish, Tom “the Hammer” DeLay, the now-indicted former congressman from Texas who resigned his seat after his political crony, corrupt super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to an array of crimes that was staggering even by Washington’s standards.

Now Hastert is in hot, hot water because, according to at least some Republicans, he knew as long as five years ago that Florida Republican congressman Mark Foley (now also resigned) took an avid interest in male House pages. Pages are high-school juniors, boys and girls typically 16 and 17 years of age, who work in Congress for a semester as messengers and clerks.


After ABC News reported Hastert was informed earlier this year that Foley swapped improper e-mails with congressional pages, the Washington Times, arguably the nation’s most conservative newspaper, called for Hastert’s immediate resignation. Those calls are likely to grow only louder in the coming days. As things now stand, Hastert looks either stupid or inept, although it’s unclear why his critics think he must be either one or the other.

What no one is saying, at least yet, is that there is another possibility: that Hastert is corrupt, that the Speaker sat on the knowledge, hoping that the midterm elections five weeks from now would allow the beleaguered Republicans to hold on to Foley’s until-now safe seat. Hastert, after all, let Abramoff and DeLay wheel and deal with impunity. And he did the practical equivalent of nothing to reform the House once their crimes — both those admitted and those still awaiting adjudication — came to light. If cold cash and hot favors were not out of the ordinary, under Hastert’s leadership, what’s a little boy-fancying?

While there is at the moment no evidence that Foley physically connected with his digital paramours, it is the thought of man-boy or adult-teenage sex that gives Foleygate it’s lurid, tabloid potency.

The mainstream press has been polite in its characterization of the Foley e-mails. As raunch goes, they are rather tame, almost first-year Princeton. Still, for parents and for many others, they are explicit enough, comparing and contrasting in detail the correspondents’ personal preferences in masturbatory styles. And while it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to discern the underage correspondents’ frames of mind, there does not appear to be overt coercion involved.

Coercion, of course, is not the point. The issue is that an adult was toying with, and emotionally and sexually engaging, underage youths. And the grown-up in question was not just any adult, he was Congressman Mark Foley, scourge of child pornographers, who in sponsoring legislation to expand the tracking of sex offenders offered this testimony to the House Judiciary Committee:

“Sex offenders are not petty criminals. They prey on our children like animals and will continue to do it unless stopped. . . . It has often been noted that a society can be judged on how it best treats its children. We have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to protect our kids from these animals.”

As hypocrisy goes, this certainly rises to Elmer Gantry-ish levels. And while Foley was one of the last House Republicans to commit to Clinton’s impeachment, and one of a handful who split his vote, he nevertheless termed Clinton’s behavior “vile” without a touch of irony.

“It’s more sad than anything else to see someone of such potential [Clinton] throw it all down the drain because of a sexual addiction,” Foley said in 1998.

Little did the nation suspect that Foley was speaking as an expert.

Foley is to be pitied as much as he is to be condemned. Widely known in Washington to be gay, he was apparently closeted in his home district, too uncomfortable with his own being, his own sexuality, to present himself as he is to his neighbors and constituents. (The Phoenix was on to Foley’s hypocrisy more than three years ago.)

In a very real way it is no wonder, if you judge by the standards of those on the far right who are seeking to turn Foleygate into an issue to be used against all gays and lesbians in public life. For those hard conservatives, it’s not that Foley improperly and recklessly broke the age barrier that, in law as well as in spirit, forbids sexual activity generally between those over 18 and those below that age. These apostles of intolerance and hate seek to use Foley’s sorry example as a club with which to beat all who are attracted to those of their own sex. That Foley is the cause as well as the example of their attack is perhaps his greatest crime.

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A. There is no excuse good enough for Foley; no one but his lawyer should attempt to defend his behavior - but remember, there are no apparent criminal acts here. B. I see no reason, other than political bias, for the shotgun approach in your article. You have used this event to slam not only Foley, but also Livingston, Hastert, and DeLay. While we should ask what Hastert knew and when, I hear Democrats announcing that "everyone knew" this was going on, yet they apparently didn't do anything about it until just before an election - and if anyone believes that's a concidence, I have a bridge to sell them.

POSTED BY TF AT 10/04/06 8:13 PM

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