Washington is embroiled in another sex scandal. A sure-bet win for the Republicans in Florida is now imperiled. The Dems look to be one seat closer to regaining control of the House. But the latest one involving disgraced GOP Congressman Mark Foley's predatory emails and lecherous instant-message exchanges is more than just a political nightmare.
It's a parental nightmare.
Foley's targets were underage high school students serving as congressional pages. I spoke with good friends of mine a few weeks ago who were positively glowing about their teenage son's experience as a page earlier this year. It is supposed to engender pride in our country and its institutions. It is supposed to inspire young people to public service. But irresponsible, selfish and sick adults have turned the Page Program into their personal sexual romper room.
For more than 150 years, these young messengers have worked in the U.S. Congress. Daniel Webster appointed the first Senate page in 1829. The first House pages began their service in 1842. Most are high school juniors at least 16 years of age. They must have stellar academic records and enlist members of Congress to sponsor them for one or two semester terms during the school year or a summer session.
The pages serve principally as gophers. They carry documents between the House and Senate, members' offices, committees and the Library of Congress; assist in the cloakrooms and chambers; and when Congress is in session, they may be summoned by members for assistance. They live in a supervised dorm near the Capitol. They wear uniforms and take classes. It's a highly competitive process to become a page, and it's an exclusive and exciting opportunity to see Washington up close. Parents put full trust in Congress that their children will be safe.
You can't possibly read Foley's reported communications with minors that have been disclosed so far -- including his attempts to rendezvous with one and apparent meetings and scheduled drinking sessions with others -- and dismiss them as merely "naughty e-mails." Yet, that's how White House press secretary Tony Snow described some of them this week. Though he admitted to being too "glib" and later "clarified" those words with tougher remarks, the damage has been done. It makes Republicans who downplay the messages -- and Democrats and journalists who sat on them -- look recklessly flippant about sexual predation. Parents of all political persuasions should be outraged by both.
It is also impossible to ignore the appearance of calculated grooming by Foley of potential young targets. In a June 6, 2002, farewell speech to pages, Foley effused about his teen pals -- even bragging about taking one male page out on a dinner date at Morton's steakhouse after the boy made a winning bid to have a meal with him. Given my own experience in Washington as a young college intern, when I was approached by a congressman to live alone with him for a winter term, I am sure there are many, many more such stories to be told.
Some Beltway types think it's absolutely absurd to expect the adults in Washington to have policed Foley more aggressively based on knowledge of his more "innocent" exchanges. Come on. This was a 52-year-old man instant-messaging teenagers. Hello? Would you be comfortable with your next-door neighbor doing that?
And this is not the first time the Page Program's participants have been exploited by politicians lurking in the halls of power.
In 1983, Republican Dan Crane and Democrat Gerry Studds soiled the legacy of the House Page Program after both admitting to sexual relations with 17-year-old pages. Crane abused his position of power with a female page. Studds with a male page. Crane apologized and was voted out of office. Studds was defiant, calling his "relationship" with his teen prey "consensual." He was re-elected. Then-Congressman Newt Gingrich called for both predators to be expelled. But the enablers and apologists for Crane and Studds settled for censure.
The consequences of letting their sordid behavior slide without the most severe punishment created fertile grounds for the Capitol Hill predation scandal we are witnessing today. I do not blame the media or the prey for the sins of the predators. I blame the predators -- and all of those, on both sides of the aisle, who looked the other way.