After election, Foley story fizzles

Posted: Dec 16, 2006 12:01 AM

If ever a news story bolstered Rush Limbaugh's low opinion of the "drive-by media," it is the tawdry saga of former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. When the story about Foley's e-mails to former House pages first broke, cable news was All Foley/All the Time. The chattering classes -- this columnist included were outraged at the GOP leadership's inexcusable failure to protect vulnerable House pages from Foley. Many pundits didn't need proof, so happy were they to embrace Nancy Pelosi's charge that there had been a "cover-up of Mark Foley's outrageous behavior."

When the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct report came out this month finding no violations by GOP leadership of House rules or standards, the once-big story devolved into news briefs and tepid editorials. No big scandal, no big story.

No apologies, despite what the media got wrong. As the ethics report noted, "Much of the initial press coverage of this matter did not distinguish between" inappropriate -- creepy, but not sexually explicit -- e-mails Foley sent to a former page in 2005 and explicit e-mails Foley had sent to a different page in 2001. The distinction is important because the investigation found no proof that any House staffer or member had seen the explicit e-mails until ABC News released them in September.

Which means: There was no cover-up. GOP staffers only saw the e-mails in which Foley had asked a former page for his "pic" and commented that another page was in "good shape." As reporters for the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times discovered, the 2005 e-mails did not warrant a story. As one editor noted, the e-mails didn't prove that Foley was "anything but creepy."

Creepy congressman -- that's hardly a headline. Some news stories linked Foley to pedophilia. While I don't condone Foley's behavior, it should be noted that Foley was sending e-mails to former pages, including college students, not, as one columnist asserted, "16-year-old pages." As the report noted, "Foley may have been using the page program to in part at least identify possible future recipients of graphic communications." That would make Foley sleazy, despicable and deserving to be booted out of office -- but not a pedophile.

There was a failure by Scott Palmer and Ted Van Der Meid -- top GOP aides -- as well as GOP Rep. John Shimkus, who chaired the board that oversees pages, to investigate whether the smoke of the 2005 e-mails would reveal fire elsewhere.

Here's a new twist, though. GOP leaders complained that the Foley story was the work of partisans who were cynically using the page story to win the House for Democrats -- and they turned out to be right. Staffers of the House Democratic Caucus had the e-mails since the fall of 2005. They were not so concerned for the welfare of pages that they ran to law enforcement -- as some partisans suggested the GOP should have done. They were too busy leaking the e-mails to the news media. The former page was their pawn.

To me, the biggest irony is that Foley probably would have helped the GOP more if he had not resigned immediately after ABC News reported the explicit e-mails. If Foley had waited a day or two, the news story would have been on the pressure mounting for Foley to resign to atone for his crude behavior. But the quick resignation -- which Speaker Denny Hastert and other GOP leaders had sought -- meant that outraged critics had to look elsewhere for a scalp.

If House Republicans had not had such a poor record on ethics, the public might have seen a righteous move to oust Foley instead of a cover-up that did not happen.

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