By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 14, 2006
During his 19 years in Congress, Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) has been widely known as a moderate Republican who rarely engages in firebrand politics. But that image has been challenged in recent days with remarks that a supporter called "unusual" and his opponent said were a sign of "desperation."
In a debate this week with Democratic challenger Diane Farrell, Shays said the Abu Ghraib prison abuse did not constitute torture. "It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops from [Maryland] who were involved in a sex ring, and they took pictures of soldiers who were naked," he said. "And they did other things that were just outrageous. But it wasn't torture."
Shays also recently defended House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for his handling of the Mark Foley page scandal, contrasting it with the 1969 Chappaquiddick bridge incident, in which a young woman drowned in a car accident involving Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Hastert didn't kill anybody," Shays told the Hartford Courant.
Several analysts attributed the comments to Shays's frustration with what has become the toughest reelection campaign of his career. Shays has been under attack by Farrell for his support of the Iraq war, which is unpopular with many Democrats and independents in Connecticut.
Shays has tried to distance himself from the war in recent months, endorsing a timetable for withdrawal and calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. But polls suggest that Shays is still in serious danger of losing his seat.
"He seems to be coming undone," said Kevin F. Rennie, a former Republican state senator and Courant columnist. "I think he's having this conversation with himself in public that would better be held in private."
Gary Rose, an expert on Connecticut politics at Sacred Heart University in Shays's district, said the congressman is responding more forcefully than ever.
"Since 1987, Congressman Shays has routinely campaigned on the premise he is a man of principle and integrity who puts principle above politics," Rose said. "He really got aggravated when not only his opponent, but the press, suggested he was changing his position on the war due to political considerations. . . . He really feels like his core -- what makes him a special type of congressman -- has been questioned."
Yesterday, Shays backed away from his comments on Abu Ghraib. He told the Associated Press that the abuse was "torture because sex abuse is torture." But he also said, "This is more about pornography than torture."
"To appear to minimize Abu Ghraib as a sex ring doesn't characterize Abu Ghraib as what it was," Farrell said in an interview. "For him not to recognize that and be sensitive to it is deeply disappointing."
The widely reported and investigated abuse at Abu Ghraib included aggressive interrogation techniques that had been approved for use at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, such as using military working dogs to intimidate prisoners and shackling prisoners in painful positions. The photographs of sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib led to more than a dozen investigations into U.S. interrogation and detention policies.
Shays's campaign manager, Michael Sohn, said Farrell and the Democrats "have been personally attacking Chris for over three years now" and added: "They want two different standards." Farrell and Shays also squared off in the 2004 congressional campaign.
Sohn said Shays's remarks on Kennedy only reflected the fact that the senator had come to Connecticut a few days earlier for a Farrell fundraiser after she had called for Hastert to step down -- before Hastert was shown to have made serious mistakes in the handling of the page scandal.
"Chris has a reputation his entire career of just speaking the truth -- no matter how blunt it might be," Sohn said.
In his comments to the Courant, Shays said, "I know the speaker didn't go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day."
One political analyst said Shays's willingness to fight back fiercely -- something he has been reluctant to do -- is a necessary response given the fact that his career is on the line.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.