Robert Novak

After it was learned that Rep. Mark Foley had dispatched an inappropriate e-mail message to a 16-year-old male former page, the House Republican leadership was still urging him to seek re-election from his Florida district. He agreed. It was a success that surely will cost the Republicans Foley's seat in Congress and perhaps control of the House for the first time since the 1994 election.

A member of the House leadership told me that Foley, under continuous political pressure because of his sexual orientation, was considering not seeking a seventh term this year but that Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), talked him into running. Reynolds confirmed that he did urge Foley, as he urged nearly all incumbents who had not made up their minds, to run again. Yet, the questionable e-mails -- not the subsequently revealed explicit instant messages -- had been known to House GOP authorities long before Foley decided to run.

While Democratic accusations of an intentional Republican cover-up are clearly without substance, the Foley affair points to a divided, disorganized House leadership. The gap between Reynolds and Speaker Dennis Hastert is wide. The image of a dysfunctional House GOP is underlined by Hastert asserting that "I just don't recall or remember" Reynolds calling Foley's e-mail to his attention "this spring." These are leaders who operate in secret and have trouble communicating with one another.

Dealing with Foley was complicated because he was a known, though never a self-proclaimed, homosexual. A desire not to be accused of gay-bashing may have influenced party leaders to set aside the e-mail that the former page described as "sick, sick, sick."

Foley's e-mail was uncovered as early as last November. The boy's congressional sponsor in Louisiana, Rep. Rodney Alexander, notified the clerk of the House, who informed Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, head of the board that oversees pages. Staffers set at mid-April the time when Reynolds went to Hastert.

At this point, Foley was talking about a 2006 Senate candidacy (after his aborted Senate race in 2004) but was discouraged by White House aides who viewed him as unelectable. According to House sources, Foley was then considering retirement from Congress.

The NRCC regarded the sprawling 16th congressional district as safe Republican territory easily carried by a new candidate. Foley received 68 percent of the vote in 2004 (with George W. Bush winning there for re-election by eight percentage points). There was plenty of time for a substitute with Foley not filing for re-election until May 8.

Even though the sexually explicit messages sent to other former pages in 2003 and 2004 were not yet known, this was the time to ease out Foley. But Reynolds indicated to me he urged him to stay, in hopes of keeping non-incumbent districts to a minimum. Until the Foley scandal broke, Reynolds was being heralded by Republicans as a savior whose astute managerial skills improved prospects for keeping the House.

Late last Friday afternoon on the House floor, as Congress prepared to adjourn until after the midterm elections, unhappy Republican members speculated about a campaign plot hatched by Democrats and the liberal news media. It came, they grumbled, just as prospects were looking up for the GOP with a burst of legislative activity (including passage of a border protection bill).

But by this week, Republicans were turning on their own leaders with difficult questions. Why did the unusual attention paid to teenage boys by a homosexual man not flash warning signals? Why did Shimkus not alert his Democratic counterpart on the page board, Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan? Above all, why was Foley urged to run again?

These questions are being asked by not only rank-and-file House members but by elected members of the leadership. Indeed, Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner and Majority Whip Roy Blunt all were acting disjointedly as the scandal broke this week (with Boehner publicly declaring it was the speaker's responsibility). The failure of the 109th Congress to satisfy the Republican conservative base seems linked to failure to deal effectively with Mark Foley.


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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