IN 1983, REPRESENTATIVE GERRY Studds, Democrat of Massachusetts, admitted to having sex with a 17-year-old male page. He was censured by the House of Representatives. During the vote, which he was compelled by House rules to be present for, Studds turned his back on the House to show his contempt for his colleagues' reprimand. He was not expelled from the Democratic Caucus. In fact, he was his party's nominee in the next election in his district--and the next five after that--winning reelection each time. He remained in the bosom of the Democratic Caucus in the House for the next 13 years.
In 2006, Republican congressman Mark Foley was found to have been engaged in lurid sexual Internet correspondence with a 16-year-old House page. There is no evidence yet of his ever laying a hand on anyone, let alone having sex with a page. When discovered, he immediately resigned. Had he not, says Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, "I would have demanded his expulsion." Not only is Foley gone, but half the Republican House leadership has been tarred. Hastert himself came within an inch of political extinction.
Am I missing something? There seems to be an odd difference in the disposition of the two cases. By any measure, what Studds did was worse. By any measure, his treatment was infinitely more lenient.
Moreover, in the case of Studds, I do not recall demands for investigations of the Democratic leadership about what they knew about Studds and when they knew it. Yet Hastert is pilloried for having not done something about Foley.
The usual explanation is that Republicans deserve extra scrutiny and punishment because of hypocrisy. They campaign ostentatiously for family values while undermining them in private. Foley, for example, was a founder and co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.
True. Hypocrisy it is. And hypocrisy is certainly a vice. But is it a capital offense? Was Studds's perverse defiance about having sex with a 17-year-old page--as dramatized by his turning his back on the House during the censure vote--a virtue?
The other charge that seeks to generalize the crime is to cite the Foley affair as an example of the arrogance of power. I don't get this one either. There is arrogance in dealing with lobbyists like Jack Abramoff; in shamelessly trading earmarks in the dead of night; in holding up voting on the floor of the House (in violation of House rules) in order to turn the vote of a recalcitrant member. That's abuse of power. But Foley's actions were no more an example of arrogance of power than was the drunken Wilbur Mills watching his paramour, the stripper Fanne Foxe, jump into the Tidal Basin. Call it dalliance or deviance. It has nothing to do with arrogance.
As for the alleged arrogance of the House leadership, what was Hastert supposed to have done? Contrary to the impression given in initial press reports, in 2005 Hastert did not see the damning instant message traffic that brought Foley down. What he saw were emails that were not sexual or lurid, but merely inappropriately friendly.
What should Hastert have done? Gone public at a time when the parents had pleaded that the case not be made public? Out a gay member of Congress? Had Hastert gone public and reprimanded Foley, those now calling for his head for not protecting children would be condemning him for outing, harassing, and unfairly singling out a gay member of Congress.
In the calm light of day, Hastert's actions, while not exemplary, are defensible. This is not a time of calm, however. Republicans are panicking because the toxicity of the scandal is affecting them all. Democrats are salivating because they feel regaining the House is within their grasp. And the press is hyping because, well, this is just too good a story, a most unlikely election-eve dramatization of Edwin Edwards's immortal line: "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy."
Studds retired from the House in 1996 after 24 years of service, the political equivalent of dying in your sleep. His last term was spent in the minority, as the Democrats two years earlier had lost control of the House. What, after 40 years, did them in? One factor was the House banking scandal. In the calm light of retrospection, it was a scandal of spectacular insignificance. Perhaps the Dem ocrats deserved to lose the House for 40 years of imperial rule. But what finally helped bring them down was a few kited checks involving ridiculously small sums from a "bank" that was little more than a convenience store.
Unfortunately for them, it was the stuff of bumper stickers and talk show rants. Now perhaps it's the Republicans' turn to be felled by a similarly microcosmic event with plenty of guilt by association. But the Republicans can't complain. They know as well as anyone that the only justice in politics is the poetic kind.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.