What's Wrong With Washington: Exhibit A

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 7, 2006

The powers that be, from Capitol Hill to the White House, will deny it, but the face of Washington these days is former Florida Republican congressman Mark Foley and the House GOP leadership, represented by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. Together the two men serve as proxies for much that is wrong with this town.

Figuring in any discussion of what's wrong with Washington is the matter of how the powerful prey upon the vulnerable. Foley pops up as Exhibit A. He used his membership in the House to disarm and gain access to children entrusted to the care of Congress, and he did it for his own lascivious purposes. Were he not a congressman, those young boys would have been safely beyond his reach. And while the full story of this sordid affair is still unknown, it seems clear that Foley didn't exploit that access just once or twice. He may have been at it for years.

Exhibit B in what's wrong in Washington is the House GOP leadership's handling of multiple reports about Foley. The behavior of Hastert has come to symbolize the noxious brand of partisanship at play in Congress. The responses of Hastert and GOP House members after learning about Foley reflect a political value system that places self-preservation and retention of power over all else.

Exhibit C is the hypocrisy that has come to characterize the behavior of so many of Washington's powerful who solemnly proclaim one thing but, when they think no one is looking or will find them out, do precisely the opposite. Again, Foley.

Granted, this was not the first time a congressman has betrayed the public trust or crossed the line with a minor. But coming as it does from a member of a political party that considers itself to be holier than thou, and from a congressman who held himself out to be a protector of children, the disclosures show the true depth of

Foley's deceit.

Citing the destructive influences of alcohol and a wayward clergyman in his life, Foley has dropped out of sight, leaving his lawyer to do the talking. But the scandal and scorn that Foley and the Republican leadership have brought upon themselves will not go away. Nor should they.

The watchword is accountability. It goes without saying that Foley should get all the professional help he needs for problems that he says stem from alcoholism and childhood sexual abuse. But he also must be held responsible for his own abuse: that of his office and the young pages.

Likewise, Hastert and the House leadership that aided and abetted Foley by averting their gaze -- all in the name of continuing the Republican hold on the House -- must be held accountable by a higher power for what they failed to do. That higher power is the voters, who get to have their say on Nov. 7.

It's obvious that Hastert and senior House Republicans and their staffers learned nothing from the Catholic Church's clergy abuse scandal. Hastert and House GOP higher-ups, like their church counterparts, reacted to reports of scandal by covering up. The GOP leadership, like the bishops, did not lift a finger to learn the full extent of the misconduct.

Only after being confronted with evidence of Foley's sexually explicit advances to teenage male pages -- and the public anger that followed -- did House Republicans find their public voices. And then only when they realized that they were the focus of criticism.

Even now the public does not have a clear idea of the extent of Foley's improper interaction with teenage male pages. Did Foley approach other pages? Until the covers were stripped off, Hastert had made little effort to find out. The speaker's chief preoccupation in the initial phase was to concentrate on sprucing up the GOP's image. Party loyalty trumped House pages.

As late as Thursday, Hastert was still trying to shift blame to others, including Democrats, accusing them of springing this news of the Foley scandal before next month's elections.

That's why people aren't buying Hastert's latest declaration that the "buck stops here." It's only because he finally realizes that it can't be passed to anyone else.

See the new faces of Washington. They sure aren't pretty.

kingc@washpost.com

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