No Spinning Past This Scandal
Even when damage control seems a lost cause, I suppose you have to follow the playbook. So Mark Foley resigns his House seat in a nanosecond, then explains those creepy electronic messages to young congressional pages by declaring himself an alcoholic, effectively blaming it all on demon rum. House Speaker Dennis Hastert promptly calls for a really thorough -- meaning really slow -- investigation. The rest of the Republican leadership declares itself shocked and/or saddened, but agrees that the time has come to move on, folks, nothing to see here.
These practiced responses have long served politicians, but you don't get the sense that anyone thinks they'll work this time. There's really no effective spin you can put on the Foley scandal, no way that even the Republican Party's image-making geniuses can make people feel good about a 52-year-old man discussing masturbatory techniques with a male teenager via instant message.
About all the party leadership can do is hope the whole affair is so unsavory that some voters will be too grossed out to pay much attention. Then maybe it wouldn't sink in that House leaders were told in November 2005 -- that's almost a year ago, for anyone who's counting -- about an inappropriate e-mail that Foley had sent to a House page. The situation was handled with nothing more than a quiet warning.
The leadership didn't launch an investigation, which probably would have unearthed the much more explicit instant-message exchange between the Florida Republican and another young male page that surfaced last week. House leaders even let Foley continue to serve as co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, an irony too sad and unforgivable to properly enjoy.
Hastert doesn't remember ever being told of any problem with Foley, but others remember telling him about the e-mail incident. That's one of the questions -- What did I know, and when did I know it? -- that Hastert wants investigators to get to the bottom of. Eventually. Certainly after the November elections.
Former speaker Newt Gingrich suggested over the weekend that House leaders may have worried last year that if they pursued the Foley matter, they'd be "accused of gay-bashing." Clearly, in terms of his spinning skills, Gingrich has lost a step. The issue was whether a congressman was having improper communications with a child, not whether the congressman was gay; it would have been just as troubling if the e-mail had been sent to a female page. And anyway, it's a little late for the Republicans to denounce gay-bashing after raising it to an art form.
I don't know whether the Republicans will lose control of the House this fall, but I know that they deserve to. That judgment has nothing to do with party politics; there have been times when the Democrats were in control and allowed Congress to sink to a similar level of corruption. But that's surely where we are now, and since the Republicans are the ones in charge, they're the ones who deserve the blame.
We've had the Jack Abramoff scandal. We've had the Randy "Duke" Cunningham scandal. Congress -- especially the House -- has made immigrants into scapegoats. House Republicans didn't even clear their throats in objection when the White House demanded, and eventually won, the right to decide what is and isn't torture. For years now the House has legislated primarily to shovel pork, pork and more pork to the folks back home.
And now, however it happened -- either because of a deliberate political decision or because the institution is so degraded that it couldn't stir itself to action, like an overstuffed aristocrat crippled by gout -- we learn that the House has countenanced a congressman's sick advances toward teenagers.
Congressional pages tend to be idealistic, patriotic young people who wholeheartedly believe in America. Many are contemplating a career in politics, and they are thrilled to have the chance to come to the U.S. Capitol and witness the workings of our great democracy.
Those who came in contact with Mark Foley certainly got a lesson, didn't they?
Famous quotations are the last refuge of newspaper columnists and other scoundrels, so I try to avoid them, but at the moment I can't help thinking of what Oliver Cromwell said to the so-called Rump Parliament in 1653. Voters would do well to send the same message to the House of Representatives next month:
"You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"