The Corner

The Case for Lightening Up

Okay, so I’m glad I decided to sleep on it. Momentary exhaustion is not a good position from which to argue the larger case for fatigue in the Foley matter. But I do think we are in the midst of a moral panic and political feeding frenzy that has lost sight of a few facts. Let me at least make the case for calming down a bit.

1) Foley has resigned in disgrace. Countless readers — some objecting to my supposedly selectively partisan fatigue — seem to think this scandal should be treated like the Clinton scandal. But didn’t you hear me? Foley has resigned in disgrace. Clinton didn’t do that. And by refusing to do the right thing, and by lying about it relentlessly, he dragged the country through his own scandal.

This raises a fascinating counter-factual question. What if Clinton had resigned for his disgraceful behavior? My guess is that President Gore would face a barrage of questions from an incensed rightwing which wanted to play with the corpse more, like a cat disappointed the mouse up and died.

So much of this current brouhaha revolves around the fact that Foley did at least one thing right: he resigned when confronted with the repugnance of his own deeds. This left a lot of angry people without someone to flay in public. Which in turn left the social conservative base of the GOP looking for a scalp at the same time the Democrats were eager to relentlessly exploit the issue for partisan gains. These high pressure and low pressure systems helped create the perfect storm we are in.

Here’s another counter-factual for you. I deeply suspect the best thing in the world for the GOP would have been if Foley had refused to resign for a few weeks. That way the GOP could show its moral rectitude by defenestrating the guy with much gusto. If it lasted long enough, we might even have seen some Democrats hem and haw in his defense — as they did with Gerry Studds, who did something much worse.

Which brings us to number 2) Foley didn’t have sex with any teens! Don’t get me wrong. I think the guy belongs in a Bangkok prison on principle. But, as grotesque as what he did — or tried to do — may have been, so far there is no evidence that he actually bent a page, as it were. People may think it’s old news, but someone really does need to explain to me by what standard Studds’ behavior wasn’t far worse. And yet, he never resigned, never apologized and continued to serve in the Democratic caucus for another 13 years. Indeed, he said that being gay — and being gay alone — meant there was nothing wrong with him seducing a teenage page since the age of consent in DC is 16. I got no sense scouring through LexisNexis that he was shunned by his colleagues for actually doing what Foley merely Instant Messaged a desire to do.

One small example: Studds served on the Host Committee for the AIDS quilt in Washington in 1996 with the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi and … Andrew Sullivan. Perhaps Studds was given the cold shoulder at the open bar, but I doubt it.

Which leads us to 3) The current scandal is proof that America has moved to the right. We may not be able to see it because we’re always looking for proof the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, but the fact is the reaction to Foley — who, again, never had sex with any pages (at least so far) — is much more severe than the reaction to Studds was. The debate over Studds was whether he should have been reprimanded or censured. Only a few firebrands like Newt Gingrich wanted both Studds and Dan Crane (who slept with a female page) expelled from Congress entirely. That position was considered too harsh back then by both sides. Moreover gay rights advocates embraced Studds at the time. Robert Bauman , a former conservative Republican congressmen who lost his job when he was caught in 1980 soliciting sex from a 16 year old (and subsequently became a leading gay rights advocate), rallied to Studds’ defense. He told The Washington Post that Studds should not resign or apologize.

’’Should someone apologize for being straight?’’ Bauman asked the Post. ‘’Should they apologize for having red hair or black skin? I mean, it is not — as some of my fundamentalist friends said, and I once thought — a matter of choice.’’ This perspective was fundamental part of the debate over Studds at the time.

The main reason Studds stayed in office for another 13 years was that he represented Provincetown, Mass — the gay Mecca. But now, according to Andrew Sullivan, “every openly gay man I know, seems creeped out by Foley’s conduct.” If that’s true — and Andrew knows a lot of openly gay men from Studds’ old district — then even gay America has moved considerably to the right. (Although I suspect that some gay rights advocated are cynically exploiting this scandal as part of an argument against being in the closet — another front in the perfect storm). The reason social conservatives especially should keep this in mind is that they seem want to use the Foley scandal as proof that the country is going to hell. But this moral firestorm is in fact proof that the country is moving in the right direction, by their lights. The fact that liberals haven’t cottoned-on to the fact that they’re lending support to social conservatives shouldn’t distract us from that.

4) One last point relating to Hastert himself. What made me fatigued yesterday was the relentless finger-pointing, back-stabbing and blame-shifting among Republicans. On the merits of these arguments I think both Ramesh and Mark Levin make very persuasive points. But, it seems to me, this is for the most part a sideshow created by the vacuum of Foley’s instantaneous resignation. By all means, investigate what happened and when. But since this is all about political finger-pointing at this point, the question of whether Hastert should resign seems to me an entirely political question. So while I’m not up-to-speed on the latest sinking-ship revelations from various staffers (which means my views may change when I read the papers), the get-Hastert movement strikes me as more than a bit unfair (as Mark rightly argues). But since this is now about politics, why should fairness to Hastert be the defining question? Politics is rarely fair because politics often requires people to take one for the team. If Hastert is hurting the GOP my guess is he’ll go. If stepping down would be worse, he’ll stay. The rest is commentary.

Whether the court intrigues swirling around Hastert are cause for fatigue has much to do with tastes rather than morals. Lots of liberal readers have written-in to complain that supporting Hastert or being bored with the argument over him is a sign that conservatives and/or National Review aren’t disgusted by Foley’s behavior or that we’re hypocrites for caring more about Clinton than Foley. Please. This is just plain nonsense. Because Denny Hastert, whatever his faults, didn’t sexually harass, or seduce, or bed anybody. That’s not something you can say about Foley, Clinton or Studds. So analogies of this sort are a sign of somebody else’s partisan distortions, not ours.

In short, by all means let’s keep digging. But there’s time enough to catch our breath every now and then.

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