Sunday, October 08, 2006

The new scandal

Seven or eight years ago, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, I argued repeatedly to my Republican friends that private sexual matters should be kept out of politics. I even wrote an op-ed speculating about how the public revelation of the affairs of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt or Martin Luther King, Jr., might have changed the course of history, but I couldn’t find a home for it. Now, faced with the Foley scandal, I have to ask myself some hard questions about applying the same standard to this regrettable situation.

Certainly Representative Foley emerges from his instant messages as a very disturbed middle-aged man. They are tasteless, childish, extraordinarily adolescent, and unbelievably indiscreet. He seems to have seen himself like a teenager trying on homosexuality. For the record, however, I do not believe that what he did, based upon what we know so far, should be treated as a crime. The concept of an age of consent is an old one, and in Washington, D. C. in is 16. I would not favor raising it; I have already read about too many prosecutions of 16-year old boys who had sex with 14-year old girls (including one young Kansan who not only impregnated the girl, but married her.) Foley obviously was taking advantage of the charisma of his position as a Congressman, but such things have happened (more commonly in a heterosexual context) for centuries, and there is no way to stop them. (The contemporary feminist argument that such affairs always represent the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful is much too simplistic. Actually it is the lesser person in the hierarchy who often feels more power in such cases.) Foley did not, according to what we know so far, use his position actually to extort sex or threaten pages who did not respond to his advances.

What gives the scandal its interest, it seems to me, is the monstrous Republican hypocrisy that it has revealed (and that may have had something to do with it in the first place.) Foley, who had made legislation against child sexual predators one of his main planks, had gotten away with his behavior for years in full view of his Republican colleagues. Two or three Republican staffers or Congressmen state that Dennis Hastert or his staff had been informed, and they did nothing. But that is not all. The Republican-appointed clerk of the house, who has just resigned (and whose resignation was not commemorated in the usual fashion on the House floor), was gay. So was Foley’s former administrative assistant, who had tried to bring the problem to Hastert’s attention. Indeed, according to the New York Times, there is a considerable network of gay Republican house staffers who are now keeping a very low profile. Meanwhile, no one has ever uncovered anything further about “Jeff Gannon”, the male prostitute who visited the White House dozens of times for purposes that have never been revealed, meanwhile posing as a reporter who fed Scot McClellan softball questions.

The House Republicans, in short, while railing against gay marriage, outlawing gays in the military, and relying largely on the homophobic religious right, have, inevitably, tolerated a substantial gay presence in their midst. That might even explain why Dennis Hastert and his office was so reluctant to do anything about Foley—they knew that revelations would not stop with him. The Republican Party’s anti-gay stance, like claims of imminent victory in Iraq, simply denies reality. Gays are here, even in Republican politics (indeed, they always have been), and are not going away. The sooner we learn to treat them like other Americans, the better off we will all be. But the Republican Party is clinging to the razor-thin majority that has enabled it to exercise almost absolute power for the last four years, and increasingly relying upon constituencies who apparently regard homosexuality as a temptation to which only the weak succumb. (As a lifelong, hopeless heterosexual, this is a view I have never been able to understand.) So desperate are the Republicans to deal with this inevitable gulf between their rhetoric and their behavior that they have begun to argue that the pages somehow entrapped Foley, or that Democrats are somehow to blame for the whole affair. Speaker Hastert’s odd behavior and shell-shocked demeanor suggest that he in fact knows a good deal more than he has let on., my favorite source, now shows the Democrats with a tie in the Senate and a 4-5 seat majority in the House, based upon the most recent polls. All week the Democrats have gained a house seat about once every two days. In my opinion the real reason is that the Republicans’ proudest achievement—their ability to “stay on message”—is catching up to them. Their statements on major issues are simply not credible, and they are not what they claim to be. Perhaps more and more Americans seem to feel that they need to be taught a lesson.


Roger Albin said...

But there is a certain rough justice in this affair. Foley's transgression is not that he is gay but that he is taking advantage of his privileged position. Would his actions be less despicable if pages in question were girls? Clearly not. The Republicans are in danger of losing support from their evangelical base because of the essentially tangential fact of Foley's homosexuality. They are truly hoist with their own petard.

Anonymous said...

The Republicans continue to engage in their decades-long project of portraying the Democrats as effeminate, libidinous, commie, duplicitous, security-endangering hippy drug-using peaceniks while permitting themselves all sorts of questionable behavior. Why that game doesnt't get old with the US public I'll never know.

In the same vein, Silvio Berlusconi just labeled Centrist Romano Prodi as the living reincarnation of Stalin.