Friday, October 06, 2006

Mark Foley, in three movements

I suppose I'll say something about Mark Foley. I got into an online chat Tuesday night that wound up getting a little heated. I've cooled off now, hopefully my friends have as well, and I would like to speak to some of the points that came up at that time.

On Monday, Slate published an article by John Dickerson which cautioned Democrats against overplaying the Foley scandal. “The question is whether Republican leaders were grossly negligent or clumsily stupid,” he wrote, and if it’s only the latter, then for Democrats to press too hard would be to appeal to homophobia.

GOP leaders might not have done the right thing because they wanted to protect a safe GOP seat. But my reporting suggests for the moment that instead of being craven, they were just incompetent wimps. They knew Foley was gay and in the closet, and they just didn't want to get into whether he was following through on his flirting. When he explained that his e-mails were just a part of mentoring, they were probably relieved. Foley had given them an excuse they wanted to believe.... Sure, they could have handled the situation better, but who could know that Foley was going after young boys?


For GOP leaders to pay a heavy political price requires either more evidence that they really knew what Foley was doing or for Democrats to form an alliance, at some level, with people who find homosexuality outrageous no matter what the age.

Let's break this down a little. Theoretically, of course, the Democrats could use the fact that Foley is gay in an irresponsible and incendiary way. However, experience has taught us that the U.S. political party with a penchant for gay-bashing is decidedly not the Democrats. (Notice this week who is actually trying to conflate (1) being gay with (2) hitting on teenagers in the workplace? The GOP, in a campaign to bamboozle us and account for their slow response to Foley rumors. Wouldn't want to be perceived as homophobic, dontcha know.)

(To be fair, Monday was a looooong time ago in Foley-time, and Dickerson might very well revise some of his statements in light of subsequent revelations.)

Furthermore, Dickerson's line between negligence and stupidity is a distinction without a difference. They got a thing in Washington called "plausible deniability." It's a way of eliding the difference between evil and ignorance, to make it okay for "good men" to do nothing. It's kind of silly to apply a negligence test--to raise even the theoretical possibility that Hastert or Reynolds knew for certain that Foley was hustling teenagers, and made a deliberate decision to protect him anyway. No: Despite that there was plenty enough smoke to arouse suspicions about Foley's activities, the GOP leaders passed the buck. They wanted to preserve deniability, they wanted NOT to know to a certainty. "Craven" political considerations (Foley represented a safe seat and a good source of campaign funds) dovetailed with more normal emotions (embarrassment, desire to avoid conflict, whatever), and it was more expedient and comfortable for them not to confront him. Foleygate is a case study of plausible deniability and its shortcomings. On something as straightforward and commonsensical as protecting underage employees, technically-not-knowing doesn't cut it. "Mere" stupidity? No, toxic stupidity, reflecting moral laziness and deficient decency and character.


Okay, is this Foleygate thing the comeuppance that the 2006 Republican Party deserves? Not even close. It's a sad commentary, in fact, that this sex scandal has greater destructive power than Abu Ghraib or the recent NIE--that some upset or offended teenage boys from well-connected families, signify more heavily than senseless loss of life, or the squandering of America's world standing.

Some of the House pages seem to have been discomfited by Foley's come-ons, but I can't tell that anyone was harmed. In our Tuesday chat, my friends and I batted around the question of whether "predator" is an appropriate term for Mark Foley and his behavior. If it sticks, I think it's because Foley was pursuing pages via the Net; when I hear "sexual predator" nowadays, I think of older men deceiving and manipulating young kids online. I don't think it has a gay connotation, necessarily. But "preying" could encompass kidnap and rape and other awful stuff. I find Mark Foley closer to pathetic than predatory.

To me, Foleygate has a certain symbolic weight, because I find it so perversely apt that this chicken-hawk Mark Foley, this trenchcoated stranger-with-candy, chaired the Missing and Exploited Children caucus. That's the Republicans all over--their total cynicism about government leads to these absurd pairings of people and roles: draft dodgers are setting military policy, Luddites are in charge of science and technology, torture-lovers are running the Justice Department, despoilers are running the EPA and Interior Departments. With Hurricane Katrina the anomaly became too glaring to ignore; maybe with Foleygate as well. But this is just me. I doubt whether there's a TV ad or campaign bumper sticker in this idea.

I'm of a mind to exploit the Mark Foley controversy if it's got political legs. Exploit it for all it's worth. Is this playing footsie with gay-bashers? Maybe. Do it anyway, I say, if it'll help win the midterms. Rub the GOP's face in their grotesque hypocrisy, and the way they play "family values voters" for suckers. As I wrote the other night, I don't see it as recruiting homophobes to the Democratic Party, I would see it as trying to depress the homophobic Republican vote. I don't think this is an issue the Democrats could lose their soul over.

Exploiting Foleygate isn't a long-term strategy, and the thought of it doesn't exactly give me a noble feeling. I'm not even brimming with confidence that it will make a crucial difference. (I'm not getting my hopes up this Election Day. My heart hasn't healed from 2004 yet.) But if it kept one gay-hating judge off the federal bench, it would be worth it.


Related to the Dickerson / Slate article, I took a swipe the other night at Slate as an entity. Let me elaborate on my anti-Slate grudge.

Last fall, in the same humble blog template that you now behold, about the time of the Scooter Libby indictment, I wrote this reaction to columns by Jacob Weisberg (Slate) and Richard Cohen (Washington Post):

These guys are geniuses of self-promotion, in their way: calculatedly provocative, they are card carrying liberals who go against the grain of liberal conventional wisdom, in a way that might seem brave to their readers, but keeps them in the good graces of their sources and the Washington social scene. On the very day when anticipation over Plamegate indictments is at its height, both of them come out with columns saying that Fitzgerald's investigation is bad for liberal principles and he should shut it down. They're going for their "contrarian's merit badge," in James Wolcott's phrase.

I perceived similarly fishy timing in Dickerson’s piece this week: as the bad news for the GOP was still in crescendo, he was urging the Democrats to apply some diminuendo. I don’t think it’s intentional on any of these journalists’ part, I think it’s an instinct to calm the waters, and the nerves of their friends and neighbors. Permanent residents of Washington don’t like big scandals, and they’re scared at the prospect of a mid-term electoral tidal wave. So John Dickerson isn’t just making a clever and seemingly counter-intuitive argument in a column. He’s boosting the morale of his colleagues and loved ones at the same time. The falcon can hear the falconer; the center can hold.

The New Republic are the undisputed champs of “liberal contrarianism,” but Slate runs a close second. (I freely admit, I read Slate because it’s free online. I’d read TNR more if all its content were free, but I won’t send them any of my money. Sue me; some people read Jack Chick tracts to get them riled up, but they wouldn’t buy the things.) I think these guys think they are being edgy or at least clever, always zigging when liberals zag, but it gets real predictable after awhile. As I commented once, I’d rather not exert the mental energy needed to hold these people in their suspended state of liberal contrarianism; I’d rather just think of them as former liberals.

Generally, it makes me suspicious when a mainstream (i.e. ostensibly fair-minded) Washington pundit can take a damage-control nightmare for the Republicans and quickly turn it into a problem for the Democrats. It’s an overused rhetorical maneuver, and it’s often unfair or unobjective; it cheers for a particular outcome to an unfolding controversy. The underlying assumption, I believe, is that only conservatives can speak strongly and forcefully, while liberals always have to parse their words, for fear of angering one of their touchy sub-constituencies, or else failing in their role as guardians of fair play and objectivity. Liberals have to be civil. Only conservatives have permission to pop off intemperately. One might respond that this is the way the political landscape really is. I say perception makes the reality, and the media reinforces this habit of perception, one that puts the liberal side in an unequal position. "Strong but wrong" often works in U.S. politics, as Bill Clinton has observed. Liberals should be permitted to be "strong."

Also, it may seem strange to say this about Slate, an Internet-only publication, but they share a little of the print media's fear and ignorance of the online world. Kinsley and Weisberg and Saletan and Dickerson (formerly of Time magazine) are print journalists, pad and pencil men, at heart. The main manifestation of this is in snide remarks about "angry bloggers," but sometimes it shows up in simple misunderstandings of how many people use computers nowadays, how online communications are changing Americans’ lives. Dickerson downplays these “overly friendly” e-mails as flirtation, at least there was no follow-through that we know of. This attitude gives short shrift to the intimacy, or invasiveness, online communications can attain. Again, maybe Dickerson would say something different in light of the newly-published salacious details. But in an important sense, the IM's weren't just the prelude to a sexual encounter, they WERE the sexual encounter. Would that Dickerson were more hip to that fact.

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