The buck stops elsewhere

October 05, 2006

Mark Foley's lawyer insisted the former congressman was making "no excuses" for his sexual pursuit of teenage House pages, but just wanted the world to know he was a closeted, gay alcoholic who was molested in his youth by a clergyman.

Meanwhile, the hierarchy of House Republican leaders who had hints for months or years of Mr. Foley's predilections are similarly trying to duck any blame for failing to take the matter seriously.

These evasions are most striking coming from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who in a frantic attempt to save himself has faulted his staff, his lieutenants, the parents of a page who didn't want to go public and especially Democrats trying to oust the GOP majority in next month's elections.

Hastert ally Rep. Ray LaHood, who, like Mr. Hastert, is an Illinois Republican, indicted the page program itself, calling for a shutdown of the "antiquated" tradition of bringing high school students to spend a semester on Capitol Hill because "some members betray their trust and take advantage of them."

So far, no one but a lowly aide has accepted responsibility for contributing to this imbroglio - claims to the contrary notwithstanding. With this quality of leadership on display, it's probably a good idea not to have young people observe it at close range.

Mr. Foley, a Florida Republican, is following an all-too-familiar script, popular in Hollywood as well as politics: Booze, drugs and childhood abuse made them do it, whatever it was. If his personal problems were not intended as excuses, why reveal them now?

The scapegoating among House leaders is also common. Republicans tossed out Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998 after a poor election showing, pulled the plug on his replacement, Robert L. Livingston, when skeletons popped out of his closet, and installed Mr. Hastert, a protege of then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who also left office in disgrace.

Whether Mr. Hastert should take the fall in this case is a tactical question Republicans will decide in their self-interest. Even so, it would have been refreshing if the House speaker, who's been ready to retire for some time, had stepped up as soon as the Foley scandal broke last week and admitted he was at least partly at fault because it happened on his watch.

That's the sort of lesson in leadership teenage pages would profit from learning.

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