The Magazine

A New Page in an Old Book

A short history of congressional dalliances.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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FIRST, LET'S DISPENSE with formalities and come to quick agreement on the gathering scandal of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., whose lascivious emails and instant messages to House pages have Washington in thrall. The Foley epistles are "abhorrent" (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi), "repulsive" (Speaker Dennis Hastert), and "repugnant" (Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid). And like President Bush, we too are "shocked," "dismayed," "disgusted," and "disappointed" by Foley's behavior.

Now, having said that, let us put things in perspective. For as much fun as the Foley affair has been for the press--and for Democrats, who had feared an October Surprise of another sort just a few weeks short of the mid-term elections--it is really a garden-variety congressional sex scandal. It may yet prove fatal to the House Republican leadership, as well as to the GOP majority in the House; but there is no compelling evidence of cosmic significance, nor apparent conspiracy to thwart justice. It is simply another instance of a fundamental truth: In any random selection of 435 members of the House of Representatives, a handful are likely to be lowlifes and perverts.

There is, however, a paradox in all this. If we look backward in time--say, over the past three decades--to count up previous congressional sex scandals, and then compare the figures to three decades before that, we are likely to conclude that the moral climate on Capitol Hill has fallen on a swift, and relentlessly downward, course. But that would be misleading. Since the early days of the Republic, Congress has contained its portion of pedophiles, fanny-pinchers, drunken rapists, and predatory gay men. It's just that they weren't called "gay" in the middle 19th century, and until very modern times, congressional sexual misbehavior was largely kept out of the news.

The paradox is that, as the popular culture has become more tolerant of sexual license, the reaction to congressional misconduct has grown disproportionately shrill. We can certainly agree that Foley's emails to youthful House employees make for stunning reading, and that he should have been disciplined by his colleagues at the very least. But it is also true that there is no evidence Foley realized the scenarios he typed on his computer, or threatened any of his reluctant correspondents. And as the late Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York once said, in a different context: "No woman was ever ruined by a book."

Modern congressional sex scandals fall into two principal categories: Members making fools of themselves; and members using their exalted status to prey on subordinates or extract favors. The model for the former category is one of the first, and most memorable, modern instances of mortification: the Wilbur Mills/Fanne Foxe Affair. In October 1974, Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, was stopped in the middle of the night near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. While Mills and the officer conversed, his passenger, an Argentine-born stripper called Fanne Foxe, bolted from Mills's car and inexplicably jumped into the waters of the nearby Tidal Basin.

The episode might have ended on that surreal note, but a few weeks after Mills's reelection in No vember, he followed Ms. Foxe on tour and appeared with her onstage, manifestly drunk, at a Boston strip club (where for $3,500 a week she was performing as the "Washington Tidal Basin Bombshell"). That was too much for his Democratic colleagues in Washington, who forced Mills to resign as committee chairman. (He retired after the 1976 election.)

This was an instructive incident for two reasons: It was one of the first times that the private conduct of a member of Congress was held up to public scrutiny, and Wilbur Mills deployed alcoholism as an excuse for his behavior. This is now such a familiar expedient to evade responsibility--Mark Foley has claimed not only alcoholism but also an adolescent episode of molestation at the hands of a clergyman--that it is startling to recall its recent origins.

The second category might best be described by the case of Rep. Wayne Hays, D-Ohio, a coarse, bullying chairman of the House Administration Committee, who was found, in 1976, to employ a young woman in his congressional office (at taxpayers' expense) who could neither type nor take dictation--"I can't even answer the phone"--and whose main responsibility was to have sexual intercourse with Congressman Hays. Elizabeth Ray, an amiable country girl whose life's ambition was to appear in Playboy, briefly exploited her sudden notoriety, but was mainly (if passively) instrumental in forcing Hays to quit his chairmanship and lose his next primary election.