The Foley Follies

26th Nov 2008

The scandal surrounding former Florida Republican representative Mark Foley was critical in the Democrats’ 2006 takeover of Congress. Now that an investigation has determined he broke no law, was winning an election worth perpetuating gay stereotypes?

You could be pardoned for forgetting about mark foley. The erstwhile congressman’s life unraveled in September 2006 with the leaking of salacious e-mails and instant messages he had sent to a male former congressional page, a personally humiliating spectacle that dominated the news for more than a month leading into the November congressional election. Confronted with the most embarrassing of these unseemly valentines by ABC News, the Florida lawmaker promptly resigned, checked himself into rehab, and released a statement through his lawyer explaining that he was gay, an alcoholic, and the victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by a priest when he was a youth. Since then, the disgraced Foley has been so reclusive it’s as if he’d vanished off the face of the earth.

He was yanked from his self-imposed anonymity on September 19, however, with the news that he’s been vindicated ,– at least legally. After a nearly two-year investigation in which 17 former pages were interviewed, officials with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that they had found no evidence to suggest that Foley had broken any laws. There is nothing to suggest that he had had sexual encounters with minors or that he had e-mailed them explicit images. The U.S. Department of Justice has also said it doesn’t plan to bring charges against the former congressman.

Lest anyone accuse me of being soft on a sexual predator, let me be clear: What Mark Foley did was reprehensible. And the fact that he’s been legally exonerated doesn’t mean he should have stayed in office; he was clearly a threat to the young charges in the page program and needed help. But, as Florida officials discovered, nothing he did was illegal. His untoward messages, a few of which solicited sexual acts, were all sent to former pages, all of whom were 16 years old or older.

The close of the investigation against Foley once again raises questions about the motives of the people who pushed this scandal to such dizzying heights of notoriety. What drove them to attack Foley with such vindictiveness? Was it really a desire to “protect children,” as so many of them claimed, or was there something more cynical at work?

To this day, it remains unclear how exactly Foley’s messages made their way into the public eye. What is known, however, is that for months anonymous sources peddled them to Washington journalists in the hope of exposing Foley, but various news organizations declined to publicize them as there was no evidence that Foley had violated any law, just that he was a little creepy. One of the first journalists to receive the explicit messages was Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper’s. His magazine refused to publish the e-mails, but after the story broke on ABC News, he revealed that he had received five of the salacious messages in May 2006 from a “Democratic operative.”

In late September, Lane Hudson, a “lifelong Democrat” and former congressional staffer then working at the Human Rights Campaign, posted the e-mails on an anonymous blog he set up titled Stop Sex Predators. Upon discovering that one of its employees was posting the messages, HRC fired Hudson, who is today lauded as a hero among gays, earning himself a place in Time’s Person of the Year issue and favorable profiles in The Advocate and Out. Hudson has refused to say where he got the e-mails and online messages. Allow me to establish a brief mind exercise: If Mark Foley had been a Democrat, would Hudson and the still-anonymous Democratic “operatives” have so desperately tried to expose him?

Foley’s reputation for hitting on pages, combined with the publicized messages themselves, certainly warranted an investigation into possible sexual abuse. But the burden of proof belongs to those flinging accusations. And people accused of criminal wrongdoing are presumed innocent. Neither of these principles—ones that liberals can reliably be counted on to emphasize when discussing the rights of poor black criminal defendants — prevented opportunistic Democrats from riding the Foley contretemps for as long as they possibly could. Weeks before the 2006 midterm election, for instance, Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate Patty Wetterling ran a TV ad alleging that “congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children.” This was a blatant falsehood, as Foley didn’t “molest” anyone. But Wetterling never bothered to retract the smear. Capitalizing on the demoralized and corrupt state of the GOP, congressional Democrats and party operatives took to the airwaves to remind voters that the Republicans, in addition to their cronyism, also had sheltered a perverted homosexual pederast.

My initial reaction to hearing about Foley was one not only of disgust but pity. While there’s no question that Foley behaved inappropriately, he never hurt anyone (indeed, in several of the IM conversations, it’s clear the 17-year-old “victim” happily egged him on), and he was apparently the victim of childhood trauma. Shouldn’t gay men and lesbians, of all people, have a bit of sympathy for such an individual? On the contrary, the reactions of liberal gay activists, who took obscene pleasure in seeing one of their brethren dragged through the mud, were at times hard to differentiate from the inquisatorial demands of many conservative commentators simultaneously calling for a purge of the so-called Velvet Mafia from Republican congressional offices. Normally, it’s the GOP that uses gay-baiting to win elections. This time it was Democrats.

Having successfully utilized homophobia for political gain two years ago, some liberal activists are at it again. In September gay radio host Michelangelo Signorile declared that he’d “outed” John McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Buse. “Buse’s sexual orientation and his relationship with McCain certainly are relevant facts in light of [Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah] Palin’s positions, beliefs, past political career and silence on the issues right now,” Signorile wrote on his blog. “And John McCain is the person responsible for making them relevant by choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate.” Signorile’s sidekick, blogger Mike Rogers, posted what he claimed to be Buse’s instant-message screen names and allegations about his sex life. He urged his readers to call Focus on the Family and alert the antigay group that a gay man was in the employ of McCain. The whole affair, revealed weeks before the presidential election, was hardly coincidental — Buse has been openly gay for years.

With no news value to be had in “outing” Buse, why would a little-known legislative staffer’s sexual orientation matter? What Buse is guilty of — and what makes details of his sex life fair game — is working for a Republican who doesn’t agree with Michelangelo Signorile. This apparently makes Buse, who by all accounts shares McCain’s views and greatly admires the man, a “hypocrite.” How many of us can say that we work for institutions whose actions or philosophies we agree with entirely? The fact that Buse works for McCain is something Signorile may disapprove of, but sexual orientation doesn’t need to dominate each and every decision a gay person makes in his life. Forget that someone might share the Republican Party’s views on taxes, national defense, or abortion (as many gay people do). The intellectual Torquemadas of the gay left mandate that gays conform to their conception of what gay people do, say, and believe. Homosexuality, they say, dictates political philosophy; no gay person can support, never mind work for, McCain because he is not sufficiently in line with a set of positions deemed obligatory by gay activists. The speciousness of this notion aside — who appointed these men arbiters of whether a gay person is sufficiently “on our side”?

Signorile’s ethical malpractice was matched by his sloppy journalism. The lead “source” for his breathless exposé was an ex-boyfriend of Buse’s who recounted their romantic history. The closest thing to “gotcha” evidence Signorile obtained was a random, 15-year-old, 40-second YouTube clip the former boyfriend provided of Buse standing in his kitchen. An elementary rule of journalism is to avoid manipulation by sources, and Signorile is either alarmingly credulous, cynical, or both not to realize that an ex-lover (male or female, gay or straight) would have an ax to grind. Seeing that both Signorile and Rogers are both public figures themselves — they are certainly more well-known than Buse, at least before they decided to make news of him — perhaps it’s fair to ask their former boyfriends about their peccadilloes?

One unforeseen aspect of gay people playing the gay card—and thereby feeding the religious right’s perception that “gay” equals “scandal” — is that it ends up damaging gays in the long run. With Foley, the initial hysteria over one congressman’s dirty messages quickly spread into an antigay witch hunt the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Catholic Church priest abuse controversy. Two weeks after the Foley revelations broke, NBC aired an anonymous allegation that former Arizona Republican congressman Jim Kolbe was “fawning, petting and touching” a 17-year-old ex-page on a camping trip to the Grand Canyon 10 years earlier. This prompted a federal legal investigation. Kolbe was not openly gay at the time of the expedition but would come out soon afterward, prompted by a story in The Advocate. When asked if the accusation against Kolbe was true, the purported victim denied any unseemliness, saying, as NBC paraphrased him, that “Kolbe was a gentleman and never acted in an improper fashion.” Nine months after the media aired unfounded suspicions that Kolbe was a pervert who preyed on young men, the investigation quietly came to an end, having found no evidence that Kolbe had done anything wrong. He was innocent, and there was no reason — other than the assumption that gay men prey on boys — to think otherwise. But the taint of a claim of sexual abuse will cloud this former public servant forever.

In the case of Foley, those who attacked him — particularly the gay (and straight) liberal partisans who ostensibly support gay civic equality — cannot sincerely claim that their intent was to expose a closeted, antigay Republican hypocrite. That’s because Foley wasn’t fully in the closet, and his record on gay issues was actually quite admirable. In 2001 he proposed an amendment to a bill on faith-based initiatives mandating that religious organizations in receipt of federal funds abide by state and local antidiscrimination ordinances, many of which protect gay people. He was a chief cosponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, voted in favor of increased funding for federal AIDS research, and supported the inclusion of crimes based on sexual orientation in the federal hate crimes statute. The one glaring exception in this otherwise exemplary record was his decade-old support (in which he was joined by many Democrats, including Bill Clinton) for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Foley, however, voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 and a similar amendment in 2006.

Maybe Foley’s strongest critics on the left really did believe that by tearing him down and turning him into an object of ridicule, they were protecting the sanctity of elected office. If that’s the case, the least one can ask from these newfound moral scolds is a bit of consistency. The faux outrage from liberals over Foley was nowhere to be found when Bill Clinton was accused of actual, not proposed, sexual impropriety with a White House intern in the Oval Office and then lied about the affair in a sworn deposition. Nor was it visible when congressman Barney Frank was caught with a male prostitute operating out of his apartment. (A congressional committee eventually concluded that Frank did not know about the man’s illegal activity, and Frank was cleared of any wrongdoing.) Indeed, the behavior of both men earned them even stronger support from liberals, who successfully (and not altogether inaccurately) portrayed them as victims of sexual McCarthyism. Surely the conduct of these men was worthy of the same outrage that Foley’s naughtiness elicited?

It’s hard to disagree with gay syndicated journalist Bob Roehr that the Mark Foley saga was just “another example of our taxpayer dollars at work in the name of homophobia.” Other than move a once safe Republican congressional seat in South Florida over to the Democratic column, the only consequence of this overly publicized imbroglio was to again raise the suspicion in the minds of many Americans that all the hoary old slanders of gay men and boys might have a ring of truth to them. Before Democrats take cues from their 2006 takeover of Congress, they — and the gay community — ought to ponder what they wrought in getting there.

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