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
Electoral-vote.com, 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.