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What Goeth Before the Fall

House Speaker Dennis Hastert at a news conference Monday after Mark Foley's resignation.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert at a news conference Monday after Mark Foley's resignation. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)

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By George F. Will
Thursday, October 5, 2006

The Reverend Elmer Gantry was reading an illustrated pink periodical devoted to prize-fighters and chorus girls in his room at Elizabeth J. Schmutz Hall late of an afternoon when two large men walked in without knocking.

"Why, good evening, Brother Bains -- Brother Naylor! This is a pleasant surprise. I was, uh -- Did you ever see this horrible rag? . . . I was thinking of denouncing it next Sunday. I hope you never read it."

-- Sinclair Lewis, "Elmer Gantry"

In life as in literature, Elmer Gantry is a recurring American figure. He is making yet another appearance in the matter of former representative Mark Foley.

Sinclair Lewis's "Elmer Gantry," like most of his novels, is dreadful as literature but splendid as a symptom. Published in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and the American craft of ballyhoo was being perfected, the novel was a cartoonish blast of contempt for tub-thumping evangelists who were doing well for themselves while pretending to do good works to redeem this naughty world. Gantry succumbed to temptations of the flesh and the real estate market. The modern twist to the fall of Foley -- public protector and private predator of children -- is the warp speed with which it moved from exposé to therapy: Foley, who has entered alcohol rehab, says he takes "responsibility" for what he has become as a result of abusive priests and demon rum.

Having so quickly exhausted the Oprah approach, the Foley story moved on to who knew what, and when. That drove Speaker Dennis Hastert to the un-Oprah broadcasting couch on which Republicans recline when getting in touch with their feelings. To Rush Limbaugh's 20 million receptive listeners, Hastert, referring to Republicans as "we," said:

"We have a story to tell, and the Democrats have -- in my view have -- put this thing forward to try to block us from telling the story. They're trying to put us on defense."

It is difficult to read that as other than an accusation: He seems to be not just confessing a coverup but also complaining that the coverup was undone by bad manners. Were it not for Democrats' unsportsmanlike conduct in putting "this thing" forward, it would not be known and would not be disrupting Republicans' storytelling.

Their story, of late, has been that theirs is the lonely burden of defending all that is wholesome. But the problem with claiming to have cornered the market on virtue is that people will get snippy when they spot vice in your ranks. This is one awkward aspect of what is supposed to have been the happy fusion between, but which involves unresolved tensions between, two flavors of conservatism -- Western and Southern.

The former is largely libertarian, holding that pruning big government will allow civil society -- and virtues nourished by it and by the responsibilities of freedom -- to flourish. The Southern, essentially religious, strand of conservatism is explained by Ryan Sager in his new book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party":

"Whereas conservative Christian parents once thought it was inappropriate for public schools to teach their kids about sex, now they want the schools to preach abstinence to children. Whereas conservative Christians used to be unhappy with evolution being taught in public schools, now they want Intelligent Design taught instead (or at least in addition). Whereas conservative Christians used to want the federal government to leave them alone, now they demand that more and more federal funds be directed to local churches and religious groups through Bush's faith-based initiatives program."

To a Republican Party increasingly defined by the ascendancy of the religious right, the Foley episode is doubly deadly. His behavior was disgusting, and some Republican reactions seem more calculating than indignant.

Foley's name remains on the ballot in Florida's 16th Congressional District, which means that Democrats, who needed 15 seats to capture the House, now need just 14. Thirteen, actually: In Arizona's 8th, where Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe is retiring, Republicans used the primary to vent, nominating a probably unelectable fire-breather on the immigration issue.

After the 1936 election, in which President Franklin Roosevelt shellacked the Republican nominee in all but two states, a humorist wrote: "If the outcome of this election hasn't taught you Republicans not to meddle in politics, I don't know what will." If, after the Foley episode -- a maraschino cherry atop the Democrats' delectable sundae of Republican miseries -- the Democrats cannot gain 13 seats, they should go into another line of work.

georgewill@washpost.com


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