The Gang That Couldn't Talk Straight

100906 article conason The Gang That Couldn't Talk StraightBy now, Americans should know that when Republican Congressional leaders talk about “family values,” they mean the values of the Soprano family. Like the mobsters on HBO, the Republicans rat each other out when things get sticky—and they, too, have considerable difficulty in getting their stories straight.

Listening to the Capitol Hill gang explain how they handled the unappetizing matter of Mark Foley—the infamous Florida Republican forced to resign over his illicit behavior toward teenage male pages—it isn’t easy to distinguish between venality and stupidity. Did Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.), Majority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) and the other Republican overseers ignore Mr. Foley’s misbehavior in the expectation that he would reform himself? Did they really believe that he should continue as co-chairman of the House’s Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus?

Or did they just hope—in the midst of burgeoning corruption scandals and voter discontent that threatened their majority—that the Foley problem could be concealed until after the midterm election?

While Mr. Hastert has never seemed capable of sustained cogitation, his responses to the questions raised by the Foley scandal have been particularly obtuse—and yet highly revealing as well. Sometimes he remembers being told about Mr. Foley, sometimes he doesn’t—and in either case, he accepts no responsibility.

Appearing on the radio with Rush Limbaugh, the Speaker even attempted to blame the Democrats for bringing up the Foley matter, insinuating that his political adversaries had withheld evidence of the Congressman’s sexual predations for three years. His friends at the Wall Street Journal editorial page insist that fear of being perceived as “gay-bashers” inhibited a serious investigation by the Republican leaders (who instead spent much of last summer warning that gay marriage would mean the end of Western civilization).

Such feeble attempts to shift the blame are less interesting than the emerging narrative of dereliction and cover-up. Mr. Hastert told CNN that he wasn’t sure when he had first heard about Mr. Foley’s inappropriate conduct, but said that the issue may have come up last spring in conversation with Representative Tom Reynolds (R.-N.Y.), who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.

According to Mr. Hastert, he doesn’t specifically remember being told about the e-mail messages sent by Mr. Foley to the Louisiana teenager, but he conceded that Mr. Reynolds could have mentioned the matter.

Meanwhile, Mr. Reynolds—whose mission is to ensure the re-election of a Republican majority in November—says he informed the Speaker because he thought his “supervisor” should know about Mr. Foley’s possible misconduct with a page.

Both he and Mr. Boehner, who says that he too discussed the issue with the Speaker, claim they assumed that the boss had “taken care” of the problem. What that meant in practice was that Representative John Shimkus (R.-Ill.), who oversees the page program, told Mr. Foley to leave the Louisiana lad alone and to be more careful in his dealings with the pages.

For some reason, Mr. Shimkus never disclosed the Foley problem to the other two representatives on the House Page Board, one of whom is a Democrat, who obviously couldn’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut. And for some reason, neither Mr. Boehner nor Mr. Reynolds ever followed up to learn how the problem had been addressed.

On July 27, the National Republican Congressional Committee received a contribution of $100,000 from the Friends of Mark Foley, a political-action committee controlled by the Florida Congressman. No doubt that pleased Mr. Reynolds, perhaps enough to erase any disturbing memory of that Louisiana incident.

Those memories were revived last week, however, when Brian Ross of ABC News began to pose questions to Mr. Foley. At that point, a man named Kirk Fordham, who used to work for Mr. Foley but now serves as chief of staff to Mr. Reynolds, suddenly returned to his former boss to advise him on coping with the erupting scandal.

The Reynolds aide approached Mr. Ross to make a deal: If ABC News would withhold the pornographic instant messages from broadcast and publication, he would make sure the network got an “exclusive” on the impending resignation of Mr. Foley. Like everything else in this tale, Mr. Fordham’s proposal reeks of stupidity and venality. It was stupid because the instant messages were at the heart of the story; and it was venal because it was an attempt to conceal what had really happened from the public and the press.

The truth about this matter—and many other issues of far broader significance—will never be known until these dissemblers and their enablers are removed from power.