Political News: Foley, Foley and More Foley

Michele Norris talks with David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, and Ruth Marcus, columnist at The Washington Post, about the week in Washington politics. It was, as Brooks says, "all Foley all the time."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Former Congressman Mark Foley is said to be in alcohol rehab somewhere far away from the political storm touched off by revelations that he sent sexually charged messages to former Congressional pages. And with Foley out of public view the focus this week has been on the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives, what they knew about Foley's inappropriate behavior and when they knew it.

Here's a quick review of what took place this week.

BLOCK: On Monday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said he and others on Capitol Hill were duped by Foley and he called on those with knowledge of Foley's contact with pages to come forward.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): Anyone who had knowledge of these instant messages should have turned them over to authorities immediately so that kids could be protected. I repeat again, the Republican leaders of the House did not have them. We have all said so, and on the record.

NORRIS: But that statement was not enough to forestall the growing calls for Hastert to step down. The conservative Washington Times newspaper called for his resignation, and House Majority Leader John Boehner moved to distance himself from the speaker. He told Cincinnati radio station WLW that he passed his concerns about Foley along to Hastert.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): I believe I talked to the speaker and he told me it had been taken care of. And, in my position, it's in his corner, it's his responsibility. The clerk of the House that runs the page program, the page board all report to the speaker and I believed that it had been dealt with.

NORRIS: President Bush and Vice President Cheney both threw their support behind Hastert, Mr. Bush saying he knew Hastert wanted all the facts to come out.

But by Thursday, Hastert was in front of the camera, accepting responsibility for the Foley matter. At a press conference in his home district in Illinois, Hastert said that he was deeply sorry.

Representative HASTERT: The bottom line is that we're taking responsibility because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here.

NORRIS: For observations of this eventful week, we turn to David Brooks, who's a columnist for The New York Times, and Ruth Marcus joins us as well. She's a columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Good to be here.

NORRIS: You know, at the beginning of the week we thought if you were coming in at the end of the week we might be talking about Bob Woodward's book, State of Denial. But I guess this week we've seen confessions, denials and lots of finger pointing, Ruth.

Ms. RUTH MARCUS (The Washington Post): Lots of finger pointing and, you know, it seems amazing that State of Denial just came out last week because we've moved quickly from State of Denial to a new state of denial.

NORRIS: You know, David, you called this the week that was all Foley, all the time. What's the political fallout for the GOP and also for the Democrats?

Mr. BROOKS: I have to say, if you look at the polls of the major Senate and House races, so far there is no political fallout. I haven't seen any movement in any poll except for maybe in Connecticut where Lieberman has now built up a lead, which I doubt has anything to do with this.

Nevertheless, I do think two big things are going on here. First, and it has very little to do with Denny Hastert. First, you have parents all around the country in a panic because their kids are IMing and they're deeply concerned about the moral order in which their raising their kids. And this plays deeply into those fears and the fact that Republicans didn't sort of get the importance of this is going to raise some concerns.

And the second thing is that, you know, at the end of a political reign, and I saw this at the end of the British Tory Party reign after 18 years in power, scandals just start popping out. And some are financial, some are sexual. And this is sort of an example of that.

NORRIS: Ruth, I saw you shaking your head a little bit. Do you think that there's not much political fallout from this or do you think this is a shifting of the plates in some way?

Ms. MARCUS: I think the plates have already started to shift and I think that the fallout is about to come. The speed with which everybody has learned about this scandal, reacted to the scandal, understood the scandal - I've spent a lot of time writing about Jack Abramoff and the culture of corruption never really took root with voters the way Democrats wanted them to.

This is one that everybody can understand, every parent can understand, every voter can understand. Whether it's going to make any individual voter in a particular race vote against their incumbent Senator or Congressman or something is another story, but it is I think, and I think the polls will show this eventually is going to talk a toll.

Mr. BROOKS: In my gut, I think that's true, but so far I'm just saying you haven't seen it race by race. In my gut, I think evangelical voters are just going to stay home because they'll be disgusted.

NORRIS: So this will dampen the value voters.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, and there's also another story here which was the great shift in public culture surrounding this. We had about, in 1983 there were two other page scandals, one Gerry Studs in Massachusetts, one Dan Crane in Illinois. Gerry Studs was reelected after having sex with a page.

NORRIS: Several times actually.

Mr. BROOKS: And then Dan Crane, who's a Republican who had sex with a female page, he only lost 52-48 in a downstate Illinois district.

So what that suggests to me is over the last couple of decades, we have become much more concerned about adult-child sex and much more conservative and judgmental and harsh on these issues, and Mark Foley's now the latest emblem of that.

NORRIS: This also raises continuing questions about the leadership in the House of Representatives. Ruth, were you surprised that Dennis Hastert has withstood this storm so far? That he has not stepped down despite repeated calls for him to do so?

Ms. MARCUS: Well, I'm not surprised for two reasons. The first is that I don't necessarily think it's in his party's political interest for him to step down. The Republicans really want to be running to try to keep control of the House. And a campaign where they say okay, we had to boot our majority leader and then we had to boot our speaker. Keep us in charge. That doesn't really seem like a good platform.

The other reason that I'm not surprised is I don't think despite The Washington Times and others' calls for his resignation that the evidence is there yet - it may come, it may not come - to justify a resignation. I think the evidence is there that we really need to have a very detailed and I would wish independent investigation of what happened, but so far I would like to see the facts first and the sentence later.

NORRIS: An investigation, though, that probably will not conclude until after the election. Prior to the election, will voters be looking for some sort of accountability, David?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think they'll be punishing Mark Foley and they'll be punishing the idea this is the core issue. And whether Dennis Hastert is a great manager or not, I doubt they will focus on. I personally didn't think Bill Clinton should resign for having sex with an employee and lying about it, so I agree with Ruth. The evidence isn't here.

But the deeper issue for Republicans, and this is something that really came up a year ago, is do we have a leadership that's leading anywhere? And I don't think they've had that for a couple of years. And so that's sort of the core issue.

NORRIS: What about for Democrats? They seem to be at odds as a party about how to deal with this. Some are saying that this should be used as a cudgel to sort of hammer away at the GOP. Others say that the Democrats should leave this alone. Shouldn't touch it. Quickly Ruth, what do you think you're seeing?

Ms. MARCUS: I think what you're seeing mostly is quiet from most of the leaders, beginning of ads from candidates really hitting this way too hard. Cover up, cover up, cover up.

NORRIS: David?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I think the Democrats should stay out. But the deeper issue is, again, talking persuasively to parents around the country about establishing a moral order where you can raise your kids. That's beyond this specific issue. I thought Clinton did that reasonably well with the V-Chip and ways to insulate kids. Traditionally, Republicans have done a better job talking about these sort of moral order, but Republicans need to start talking - or Democrats more aggressively.

NORRIS: So you're saying it's a wake-up call more at the kitchen table (unintelligible).

Mr. BROOKS: For the long term. It's a long-term issue, yeah.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Ms. MARCUS: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Ruth Marcus is a columnist and member of The Washington Post editorial board. David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.

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