Politics & Policy

The Price of Foley

Dennis Hastert is unlikely to be the Speaker of the House in the next Congress. Five days after the Foley scandal broke, and a year after his office heard its first glimmerings, Hastert has refused to take any responsibility for what happened. As a result, the Republicans’ odds of keeping the House have fallen. And even if the Republicans keep the House with slender margins, Republicans may well decide to demand new leadership. It would take only a handful of House Republicans unwilling to back Hastert for Speaker to make it impossible for him to win the post.

This result is not completely fair to Hastert. Foley is obviously the chief transgressor here. And the key mistakes that were made in addressing his offenses occurred when Hastert was not in the loop. Which makes it all the more peculiar that Hastert continues to defend those mistakes.

It can’t be done. In the fall of 2005, the family of a former page for Rep. Rodney Alexander complained about Foley’s e-mails to the boy. The family wanted the contact stopped. The matter was brought to the attention of Rep. John Shimkus, who heads the committee that oversees the page program, and to the office of the Speaker. Neither Shimkus nor the Speaker’s office demanded to see the e-mails. They accepted Alexander’s description of them as merely overly friendly, and accepted the idea that the family’s demand for privacy precluded their actually reading the e-mails. They accepted Foley’s claim that he had just sought to serve as a mentor for the boy, and told him to stop the e-mails.

And Shimkus and Hastert still defend that course of action, based on what they knew at the time: Nobody knew, they protest, about Foley’s sexually explicit instant messages to former pages. But what they knew should have been enough to warrant more concern than they showed.

First of all, what they had was not just a family’s complaint; it was a family’s justified complaint. Most pages’ families are eager for them to develop mentoring relationships with congressmen; they got their kids into the page program to make contacts. That the parents wanted to cut off contact should have been a sign that something was very wrong. And the Speaker’s office knew that something was wrong. If a page’s parents had complained about contact from some other congressman, neither Shimkus nor Hastert’s office would have followed it up at all, let alone warned the congressman to quit e-mailing. They took it seriously because they knew that Foley was, well, creepy. But not seriously enough to trouble themselves to do more, such as demanding to read the e-mails. They took it seriously enough to warn Foley; but not seriously enough to inform the other members of the page committee.

They claim that the e-mails do not contain any shocking sexual references. Had they bothered to read them at the time, however, they would have noticed a few things. This was not just a case of one page’s feeling that the congressman was contacting him inappropriately — as unusual as that would be by itself. The page also reported that the congressman had had contact with another male page that, to the complaining page, also seemed inappropriate. (And would seem questionable to anyone.) Finally, the page reported that another page — he even gave her first name! — had said that a congressman had “hit on pages.”

Under the circumstances, Rep. Alexander should have seen that the issue went far beyond the desires of one page’s family. There was evidence here that a congressman, probably Foley, was looking for sex with pages. It may not have been enough evidence to warrant an FBI investigation: The FBI has a lot of perps to catch, and no special responsibility for the page program. But it should have triggered a real investigation by House officials, beginning with Shimkus’s committee: an investigation not limited to a friendly conversation with Rep. Foley.

Hastert doesn’t seem to have known anything about this matter last fall. His staff served him very poorly in taking this matter as lightly as they did, and in keeping him uninformed. Those aides of his involved in this fiasco ought to admit their mistakes and resign, and Hastert should not allow misguided loyalty to keep him from insisting on it.

Democrats are demanding that Rep. Shimkus resign, as well, from the page committee. We think that isn’t going far enough. Shimkus had more direct responsibility for the program than Hastert. If any congressman should resign over mishandling this affair, it should be Shimkus. At the least, he should acknowledge his mistakes and place himself at the mercy of his constituents. They just might be so refreshed at the sight of moral clarity in a congressman that they show that mercy.

For what it’s worth, we think that the Republicans’ political needs are one with their moral needs in this case. There was no cover-up. But there was an evasion of responsibility, that evasion is sadly continuing, and it needs to end.

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