George Will

The Reverend Elmer Gantry was reading an illustrated pink periodical devoted to prize-fighters and chorus girls in his room at Elizabeth J. Schmutz Hall late of an afternoon when two large men walked in without knocking.

``Why, good evening, Brother Bains -- Brother Naylor! This is a pleasant surprise. I was, uh -- Did you ever see this horrible rag? ... I was thinking of denouncing it next Sunday. I hope you never read it.''

Sinclair Lewis,
``Elmer Gantry''

WASHINGTON -- In life as in literature, Elmer Gantry is a recurring American figure. He is making yet another appearance in the matter of former Rep. Mark Foley.

Sinclair Lewis' ``Elmer Gantry,'' like most of his novels, is dreadful as literature but splendid as a symptom. Published in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and the American craft of ballyhoo was being perfected, the novel was a cartoonish blast of contempt for tub-thumping evangelists who were doing well for themselves while pretending to do good works to redeem this naughty world. Gantry succumbed to temptations of the flesh and the real estate market. The modern twist to the fall of Foley -- public protector and private predator of children -- is the warp speed with which it moved from expose to therapy: Foley, who has entered alcohol rehab, says he takes ``responsibility'' for what he has become as a result of abusive priests, and demon rum.

Having so quickly exhausted the Oprah approach, the Foley story moved on to who knew what, and when. That drove Speaker Dennis Hastert to the un-Oprah broadcasting couch on which Republicans recline when getting in touch with their feelings. To Rush Limbaugh's 20 million receptive listeners, Hastert, referring to Republicans as ``we,'' said:

``We have a story to tell, and the Democrats have -- in my view have -- put this thing forward to try to block us from telling the story. They're trying to put us on defense.''

It is difficult to read that as other than an accusation: He seems to be not just confessing a cover-up, but also complaining that a cover-up was undone by bad manners. Were it not for Democrats' unsportsmanlike conduct in putting ``this thing'' forward, it would not be known and would not be disrupting Republicans' storytelling.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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