The downfall of Republican congressman Mark Foley may be rich with irony, but the obsession with personal behaviour is bad news for American politics.
It is difficult to resist the chaos theory in American politics when confronted with the morass following in the wake of Mark Foley. The six-term Republican representative from Palm Beach, Florida, quit his thriving career on Capitol Hill, saying that he would not seek re-election at next month’s off-year elections.
The butterfly that flapped its wings, causing a political storm to rival the real storms that plague his home state, was Foley’s email conversations with congressional pages – young men and women who are high school juniors (though they must be at least sixteen years of age) and act chiefly as messengers for the members of Congress they serve. The email conversations are ugly and distasteful, indicative of a predatory 52 year-old’s desire for young men and his willingness to use his influence to procure favours from the young man – possibly young men – involved. But whether the emails constituted an illegal act is, as yet, not determined.
This was certainly not the first time that scandal has hit members of Congress. But there was irony in Foley’s prurient interest in teenagers. Foley founded the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus and has played key roles in recent legislation to protect America’s children, notably the Volunteers for Children Act. The Act gives organisations that work with youths access to FBI fingerprint checks to ensure they do not hire child molesters. Foley bravely attacked a nudist camp for children: ‘I have no way of knowing whether illegal behavior is taking place in this camp.’ Presumably, there was nothing involved concealed weapons.
Foley’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which has passed both the House and Senate, ensured ‘monitoring’ systems for predatory paedophiles were in place and set minimum registration standards for paedophiles. He also co-sponsored measures to eliminate child pornography and exploitative child model sites on the Internet – and he has worked closely with the likes of John Walsh, irritating host of Fox TV’s popular America’s Most Wanted. President Bush, in terms he must now rue, hailed Foley and his colleagues as a ‘SWAT team for kids’ only two months ago. No one can be faulted for enjoying the spectacular destruction of one of the nation’s priggish, self-appointed moral guardians.
But it did not end there. For the butterfly flapped its wings into the vacuum that is American politics just before the off-year election on November 7. After the revelations emerged on the ABC network on 28 September, Foley resigned and checked himself into rehab, citing both psychological and alcohol problems. Foley, who must know the ropes very well, immediately produced an effective defence beloved of footballers who, after viciously kicking an opponent, writhe about feigning pain to avoid being carded. He promptly came out as a homosexual, an alcoholic, and introduced what he has referred to many times in relation to others as ‘the abuse excuse’ ie, he was abused by a Catholic clergyman as a boy.
Such claims foxed the Democrats. Some tried attacking Foley himself. David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) (yes, really), noted that ‘childhood trauma doesn’t excuse criminal behavior,’ forgetting that it is questionable whether he broke any law.
But then came the Democrats’ eureka moment. Playing on the fears of conspiratorial cabals, they shouted: ‘Someone must have known!’ The finger was thus pointed not at Foley but at the Republican leadership that, of course, read all of Foley’s emails or must at least have had a whiff of the scandal. ‘For over a year they knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power,’ one Democrat’s campaign ad stated. The New York Times was more philosophical in its condemnation of the Republicans: ‘That House leaders knew Representative Mark Foley had been sending inappropriate e-mail to Capitol pages and did little about it is terrible. It is also the latest in a long, depressing pattern: When there is a choice between the right thing to do and the easiest route to perpetuation of power, top Republicans always pick wrong. (1)’
Thus, leading Republican Dennis Hastert, the House Speaker with responsibility for the page program, became the primary target, though the spectre of a cabal of gay Republicans ‘protecting their own’ was also mentioned. The top House Democrat, Nancy Pelosi of California, said the public deserved answers. ‘Those who covered up Mark Foley’s behavior must be held accountable,’ she thundered. The New York Times exclaimed indignantly that Hastert was ‘still minimizing the scandal’ because Hastert reminded everyone that the page was no longer a page when the email exchanges took place. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning congressional watchdog group, has asked the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct to investigate, saying the legislators have ‘an obligation to protect the teenagers who come to Congress to learn about the legislative process’.
The scandal has grown to such an extent that President Bush, on a three-day campaign tour out west, found his accusations that the Democrats were soft on terrorism drowned out by the Foley affair. A former congressional aide has stepped forward to tell the world that people knew that Foley had been ‘way too friendly’ with the pages. The Republicans have begun to feud amongst themselves. The majority whip, Republican representative Roy Blunt from Missouri, said on Wednesday that he had not been told about Mr. Foley’s case until last week. The House Ethics Committee, which will conduct an investigation into the matter, approved some 50 subpoenas for what it promised would be an aggressive and wide-ranging investigation.
This butterfly-flap, grown into a ‘firestorm’, as the NYT termed it, may well be the most important issue in these elections. According to a poll by Time magazine, two-thirds of Americans aware of the scandal believe Republican leaders attempted a cover-up, and one-in-four say the affair makes them less likely to vote for Republicans in November.
Besides the emptiness of United States politics at this juncture, we may observe that both parties are as bad as each other in elevating the personal behavior of a leering congressman above the war in Iraq, the economy and other more important issues. Isn’t the planned erection of a 700-mile border fence more newsworthy than Foley’s?
The storm over Foley illustrates the cult of the victim in American politics, where proper debate can be closed down by moralising in the name of the ‘vulnerable’ – even when the young page in question seem quite able to deal with some texts from a a dirty old man like Foley. Twenty-three years ago, things were different. In 1983, Rep. Gerry Studds, Massachusetts Democrat, was censured by the House for sexual involvement (actual, not virtual) during the previous decade with a 17 year-old male page. Studds turned his back on members of the House as the charges were read against him. Afterward, he held a press conference with the former page, acknowledging their relationship.
Unlike Foley, Studds did not resign from Congress. In fact, he became the first openly homosexual member of Congress and won re-election six more times before retiring in 1996. How times have changed.
(1) The Foley Matter, New York Times, 3 October 2006