- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

The unmaking of the speaker of the House is happening right before our eyes. It is happening with a little help from his friends, the ones who comprise the tattered remnants of the once-clarion conscience of the conservatives. But mainly the unmaking of the speaker is happening because of the outrageous ostrichosity and willful flight-from-doing-right on the part of Speaker Dennis Hastert himself.

This latest House GOP crisis was more than could be endured by the most sincere ideologues of the party that has wrapped itself in banners of family values and Christian piety. That’s because it involves evidence of a leading House Republican’s predatory pursuit of boys who were House pages.

When the just-resigned Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, exploited a then 16-year-old House page by e-mailing and asking the boy to send him a photo, the boy forwarded the request to a congressional staff member with this unambiguous notation: “sick sick sick sick sick.” It is the same e-mail Mr. Hastert maintains was merely ambiguous and House Republican leaders last spring called “overly-friendly.”

When the boy’s parents complained to their congressman, Rep. Rodney Alexander, Louisiana Republican, asking him to make sure Mr. Foley didn’t contact their son again, Mr. Alexander brought it to the attention of his House Republican leaders.

That e-mail and those concerns were brought to Mr. Hastert’s office in November 2005. Mr. Hastert says his staff handled it and never told him about it. Rep. Thomas Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says he told Mr. Hastert about it months ago. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio says he did, too. But Mr. Hastert says he can’t remember any of that.

Republican leaders did tell Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, who heads a three-member bipartisan panel that oversees the House pages, but they withheld the information from the Democrat on the panel. (Imagine what Republican leaders would have done if Mr. Foley was a Democrat.) Mr. Shimkus merely told Mr. Foley to have no more contact with the youth. In a “don’t ask, don’t tell” spirit consistent with protecting a safe Republican congressional seat, Republican leaders did nothing more. Meanwhile, Mr. Foley had written other messages to young pages that were graphic and specific, discussing body parts, disrobing and arranging a dinner date with a page. When ABC reported the e-mails last week, Mr. Foley resigned in a Washington minute.

Now this: On Tuesday, the conservative editorial page of The Washington Times demonstrated it is possible to be influential in the nation’s capital and still put principle and decency above politics. The newspaper demanded Mr. Hastert resign “at once.” The editorial called his answers about what the speaker knew and when he knew it “phony” and his performance “inept,” adding: “Mr. Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party.”

Richard Viguerie, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, went even further. He called for the “immediate resignation of any House GOP leaders who had knowledge of … Foley’s improper contact with underage pages — but took no action,” according to The Washington Times.

House Republicans need to hear and heed Mr. Viguerie’s call. “This isn’t an isolated situation,” he observed. “It is only the most recent example of Republican House leaders doing whatever it takes to hold onto power. If it means spending billions of taxpayers’ dollars on questionable projects, they’ll do it. If it means covering up the most despicable actions of a colleague, they’ll do it. They’ve lost their moral rudder.”

You don’t have to be a card-carrying conservative to appreciate the movement’s best commonsense values. Early this year I used the occasion of Tom DeLay’s downfall (despite Mr. Hastert’s efforts to protect him) and Jack Abramoff’s scandal to write about the larger problem:

“The real congressional corruption scandal is the lack of outrage from all who are members of what was once a Grand Old Party…. What is needed most of all is a thorough House cleaning. … (Timeout: No, I wasn’t calling for a Democratic takeover; in retrospect, in fact, it reads as though I might’ve been writing Dick Viguerie’s libretto.) … House Republicans need to jettison all of the old leaders who have become the poster-persons for the culture of corruption — a corruption not just of money and politics but of standards and decency. They need to not just reform, but re-form. They need to become the Grand New Party.”

Americans of all political persuasions will be better off if House Republicans find the will and the way to save themselves from themselves.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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