The Mark Foley Scandal

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I haven't commented on this blog yet on the Mark Foley scandal but did speak to it yesterday on Special Report With Brit Hume on Fox News Channel. I went through the chronology and concluded that Speaker Dennis Hastert acted as soon as he saw the graphic instant messages and that the E-mails he had been apprised of earlier, which by all accounts were not sexually explicit but were "over friendly," were handled appropriately. I did say that I thought that the Republican chairman of the committee overseeing the pages, John Shimkus, made a mistake when apprised of those E-mails by not bringing in the ranking Democrat on the committee, Dale Kildee. Kildee is not given to partisan cheap shots and is genuinely concerned about the page program. (He appointed my nephew Dylan Wagamon as a page about 12 years ago.) I think Kildee would probably have joined Shimkus in confronting Foley and telling him to quit contacting the former pages.

Here I'd like to make one more point. There seems to be just about universal agreement that Foley should have been expelled from the House. Had Foley not promptly resigned, that's what Hastert said he would have demanded once he saw last Friday the sexual instant messages Foley had sent to former pages.

Yet 23 years ago, in 1983, the House administered a lesser punishment–censure–when Republican Dan Crane and Democrat Gerry Studds admitted to having had sex with two pages, Crane with a 17-year-old girl and Studds with a 17-year-old boy. So the standard seems to be that having sex with a serving page, for whom Congress has custodial responsibility, merits censure. But sending dirty IMs to a former page, for whom Congress no longer has custodial responsibility, merits the much harsher penalty of expulsion.

That's not logical. You could argue that this is a case of distinction without a difference. But in that case, the same penalty should apply to both. Foley, if he had stayed in Congress, should have been censured. Or Crane and Studds should have been expelled. Crane was in effect expelled by the voters: He was defeated in November 1984 by a 52 to 48 percent margin in a downstate Illinois district Ronald Reagan carried 62 to 38 percent. But Studds was re-elected that year by a 56 to 44 percent margin in a Massachusetts district Reagan carried 55 to 45 percent (admit it: You've forgotten that Reagan carried Massachusetts twice). And Studds was re-elected five more times, four of those elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. He did not seek re-election in 1996.

Are we seeing a partisan double standard here? Perhaps. But looking back to 1983, I recall feeling that censure was the right punishment then, and in the case of Foley, my first impulse was to feel that expulsion was the right punishment now.

What do I think accounts for the inconsistency? Partisan attitudes may have something to do with it: A Democratic House 23 years ago may have been more inclined to leniency than a Republican House today. But it's certainly not because of increased intolerance toward homosexuality: The change has been in the other direction. I think the inconsistency is best explained by this. About Crane's and Studds's offenses we didn't have the specifics: We just knew that they had sexual relations. We didn't have (and didn't want) explicit details. In contrast, Mark Foley's instant messages are graphic, with references to body parts and sexual acts that are vivid and, to most people, repulsive. None of us wants the world to know just what we do in the privacy of our sex lives. When we see that sort of thing in print, we recoil–and call for a harsher penalty than when we are faced with an offense stated in more abstract terms.