Untangling web around Foley scandal

October 06, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- They've been getting by on spin and raw power for so long that House Republican leaders apparently don't know how to handle a truly damaging scandal.

Fingers are pointing every which way as to exactly how and when top House Republicans responded to word that former Florida Rep. Mark Foley was sending creepy e-mails to a former teenage male page. A new version of an old Watergate-era question now swirls around House Speaker Dennis Hastert: What did he not know and when did he not know it?

Mr. Hastert said he does not recall being told last spring by Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, about Mr. Foley's questionable e-mail exchange with the page, although Mr. Hastert does not dispute Mr. Reynolds' account. Wrong answer. Inability to recall alleged mash notes from a congressman to a teenage page makes one wonder what else the speaker may have lost in his amnesia.

Mr. Hastert and other leaders say they first became aware of "overly friendly" e-mails from Mr. Foley to the page last spring.

An "overly friendly" e-mail would certainly raise alarm bells in my head and in the heads of quite a few other parents I know. Yet Mr. Hastert and other House leaders didn't probe much further.

Mr. Foley already had been confronted last fall by Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House Page Board. Mr. Foley was told to break off contact with the page, according to Mr. Hastert's office. Mr. Hastert told reporters on Monday that his aides and Louisiana Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander, the page's congressman, had dropped the matter in accordance with the wishes of the page's parents.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said in a radio interview that Mr. Hastert had assured him last spring that the matter "had been taken care of."

The story exploded onto Page One last week when ABC News reported the existence of far more lurid e-mails to other pages.

Suddenly, the vaunted GOP spin machine threw itself into gear. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on a TV talk show that House leaders might have worried that if they pursued the matter they'd be "accused of gay-bashing." But Mr. Foley was not in hot water for being homosexual. He was in trouble for making the sort of suggestions by e-mail to teenage boys that would have been no less vile if made to a teenage girl under the custodial care of the House page program.

And, of course, none of this would be as damaging to House leaders had they not allowed Mr. Foley to remain head of the congressional caucus on missing and exploited children. That's the equivalent of assigning a fox to guard the henhouse.

The first rule of damage control is to assess the damage. Unfortunately for Mr. Hastert and other House leaders, they tried to brush the Foley matter aside. Now it has come back to possibly damage their chances of keeping the House in the November elections.

Even the conservative Washington Times is calling for Mr. Hastert's resignation as speaker as the party faces midterm elections.

The only good news politically for Republicans is that their sinking polls so far have not been accompanied by soaring approval numbers for Democrats. The public appears to be weary of lackluster leadership on both sides of the aisle.

The Foley fallout sadly illustrates why absolute power corrupts so absolutely. Lack of accountability makes the powerful arrogant. The best way to offset an arrogant party in a democracy is by voting more power to the opposition party. Neither party is corruption-free, but competition helps to keep bad behavior in check.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

Trudy Rubin's column will return next week.

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