The Foley debacle's effect on Republicans and Democrats.

Policy made plain.
Oct. 20 2006 6:49 AM

Folier Than Thou

The po-faced contest between Republicans and Democrats.

Here in Washington, we're all competing to see who can be more po-faced about Mark Foley and the congressional pages. Who can deplore Foley's behavior the most? Democrats, sensing a deeply wounded Republican Party, are going in for the kill. It's the final evidence that the GOP is terminally corrupt: A congressman was cyber-molesting teenage boys, and his party leaders evidently didn't even care. Republicans answer: Hey, we invented child molesting! As an issue, that is. We own family values, and we're not about to let the party of Monica Lewinsky * and Heather Has Two Mommies outflank us on the sexual morality front. And then there are gay voices, eager to remind people that being gay and molesting children are two different things, which, of course, they are. But just to make the point clear, gays want everyone to know that they defer to no one in their distaste for Foley's behavior.

So, everyone claims to be terribly distressed. We glare at each other, looking as grim as possible, and the first one to break into a grin or a smirk or a snort loses. Stop it! It's not funny! But then, who are all the people watching Letterman and Leno, Stewart and Colbert, and laughing—laughing!—at Mark Foley's shenanigans? Who are the people cracking jokes on the Internet?  They are so distressed that they can't stop giggling, and they find the whole subject so distasteful that they can't get enough of it. This is not a traditional case of politicians' hypocrisy. This is politicians accommodating the hypocrisy of voters.

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Perhaps it would be a better world if everybody were as disgusted by the Foley episode as almost everybody claims to be. But the truth is that most people are enjoying this story and can't get enough of it. If you gave them the secret power to wish the whole thing away, they'd say, "Are you nuts? This is terrific!" Poor Dennis Hastert is suspected, probably falsely, of being willing to sacrifice a child for the good of his party, and now the other party reaps the benefit. Do you think that if the devil told Nancy Pelosi she could undo the scandal, save these 17-year-olds from the trauma of e-mail from a sicko congressman, and give up her hopes of being speaker, that she would find such an offer tempting? I don't. And I don't think Nancy Pelosi is callous or cruel. If she thought it through, she might conclude that the good that can come from a Democratic Congress exceeds the evil that a few randy e-mails may have done to a few teenage pages. Meanwhile, most Americans, I strongly suspect, would happily sacrifice a few more pages just to keep the story going for entertainment purposes.

Then there is Gerry Studds (who, by a weird coincidence, died suddenly last week). Studds was a Democratic congressman who, in 1983, was censured for having an actual, physical affair with a congressional page 10 years before that. After his censure, he continued to run in his district (in Massachusetts, natch), to win, and to serve in Congress until 1997. Compare and contrast Mark Foley: It develops that he may have had physical something-or-other with a page after all. But even before this came out, he had resigned under pressure on the basis of those e-mails alone. Doesn't that prove that Republicans are more serious about Protecting Our Children than Democrats are? Don't they win the po-faced contest?

The Studds case is troubling. Do the Republicans have a point? Maybe, but there are a few points in mitigation, as well. One is the huge random element in what becomes a Washington scandal. You don't need ideological conspiracies or grand cultural tectonic shifts. Whether something becomes a scandal depends on how close we are to an election, on what else is in the news, on what Michael Isikoff had for lunch, and so on.

The Studds case came paired with that of Republican congressman Dan Crane, who had an affair with a female page. In a mutual disarmament agreement, both miscreants were "censured," which was actually a ratchet up from "reprimanded," or "scolded," or "tickled," or some other term recommended by an outside committee. Speaker Dennis Hastert says that if Mark Foley hadn't resigned immediately, he would have been bounced. Maybe. But Crane, like Studds, was renominated by his party in the 1984 election. That would be the Republican Party. (Unlike Studds, Crane lost.)

Back in 1983, Studds took the position that the page had been over the age of consent in the District of Columbia, which is 16, and consent for the affair had, in fact, been mutual. This, of course, left out the question of whether, as a member of Congress, he had some special duty to protect even 17-year-old congressional pages from middle-aged men like himself. He probably did have such a duty, though he never paraded around as a protector of children, as Foley did.

A final difference between Studds and Foley is that the Foley case exposed the tawdry mechanics of a congressman trolling for action among teenage pages. No doubt the Studds affair involved the pre-e-mail equivalent of these mechanics, but they never became public. Obviously, that doesn't excuse Studds. But it also does not establish anything superior about Republican moral values.

Correction, Oct. 20: An earlier version of this piece misspelled Monica Lewinsky's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

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