- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

They’ve been getting by on spin and raw power for so long that House Republican leaders apparently don’t know how to handle a truly damaging scandal when it pops up and bites them in the e-mails. Now, fingers are pointing every which way as to exactly how top House Republicans responded to word Rep. Mark Foley was sending creepy e-mails to a former teenage page last autumn.

A new version of an old Watergate-era question now swirls around House Speaker Dennis Hastert: What did he not know and when did he not know it?

Mr. Hastert said he does not recall being told last spring by Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, the House Republican campaign chairman, about the questionable e-mail, although he does not dispute Mr. Reynolds’ account. Wrong answer. Inability to recall alleged mash notes from a congressman to a teenaged page makes one wonder what else the speaker may have lost in his amnesia.

Mr. Hastert and other leaders say they first became aware of “overly friendly” e-mails from Mr. Foley to an underage male page last spring, but had no idea the congressman had sent other more sexually explicit messages to other pages. “There wasn’t much there other than a friendly inquiry,” Mr. Hastert said of the 2005 message from Mr. Foley. But Mr. Foley’s “friendly inquiry,” which asked for a photograph and mentioned how another teen was in “great shape,” was called something else by the former page who received it: “sick.”

That’s “over-friendly” enough, in Mr. Hastert’s words, to raise alarm bells in my head and in the heads of quite a few other parents I know. Yet, Mr. Hastert and other House leaders didn’t probe much further. Mr. Foley already had been confronted last fall by Rep. John Shimkus, Illinois Republican, the House clerk who also heads the page board, and told to break off contact with the page, according to Mr. Hastert’s office. Mr. Hastert told reporters on Monday that his aides and Rep. Rodney Alexander, Louisiana Republican and the former page’s congressman, had dropped the matter in accordance with the page’s parents’ wishes.

Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said in a Cincinnati radio interview that Mr. Hastert had assured him last spring that the matter “had been taken care of.” Of course, when a cynical fan of “The Sopranos” like me hears that something has been “taken care of,” I immediately wonder if there was a nice resolution or the matter was thrown into a river wearing concrete overshoes.

Either way, the story exploded onto Page One a week ago when ABC News reported other, far more lurid e-mails to other pages two years earlier that were far more sexually explicit than the initially disclosed messages.

Suddenly, the vaunted Republican spin machine threw its gears. White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissively called the messages “naughty” in a chat with reporters, then later jacked up his language to stronger denunciations. Former speaker Newt Gingrich said on a TV talk show that House leaders might have worried that if they pursued the matter they would be “accused of gay-bashing.” But Mr. Foley was not in hot water for being homosexual. He was in trouble for making the sort of suggestions by e-mail to teenaged boys that would have been no less vile or, perhaps, criminal, if made to a teenaged girl who also happened to be under the custodial care of the House page program.

And, of course, none of this would be as damaging to House leaders had they not allowed Mr. Foley to remain co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus. That’s the congressional equivalent of assigning a fox to guard the hen house.

The first rule of damage control is to assess the damage. Unfortunately for Mr. Hastert and other House Republican leaders, they tried to brush the Foley matter aside in its early days. Now it’s come back to damage their chances of keeping the House in the November elections.

Even as conservative a paper as The Washington Times has called for Mr. Hastert’s resignation as the party faces midterm elections burdened by one of the most shocking scandals since Catholic bishops were charged with covering up for pedophile priests.

The only good news politically for Republicans is that their sinking polls so far have not been accompanied by soaring approval numbers for the Democrats. The public appears to be weary of lackluster leadership on both sides of the aisle in facing the nation’s current problems. But returning control of both houses to the Republicans doesn’t offer much of a remedy. Neither party is corruption-free, but a balance of power helps to keep bad behavior in check.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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