By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—If I had my druthers, this election would have turned on the war in Iraq. I hoped that when the voters finally got it, “it’’ would have been the disaster that’s turned this war zone into a recruiting ground for terrorists.
Instead we have the self-described party of family values caught enabling or at least ignoring a sick puppy of a congressman, Mark Foley, who was sex-talking electronically to teenage pages. Instead we have Speaker Dennis Hastert dismissing such an exchange as merely “over-friendly’’ and White House press secretary Tony Snow describing the messages as “naughty.’’ We even have right-wing webmaster Matt Drudge blaming the teenagers themselves as “16- and 17-year-old beasts.’’
This scandal is what has registered on the political Richter scale. This is what voters are asking their representatives about. Well, I wouldn’t have chosen to play on this field, but I will take it.
The late political scientist James David Barber once said that nobody understands the word “deficit,’’ but everyone understands the word “adultery.’’ Maybe nobody knows what to think about solving the problem of Iraq, but they know what to think about the Florida congressman, Maf54, instant-messaging a teenage page: “how’s my favorite young stud doing?’’
This scandal keeps adding up to the same punch line: You can’t make this stuff up. A 52-year-old co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus turns up on ABC News sounding like one of the creeps who populate sweeps week on “To Catch a Predator.’’ A politician who testified in Congress that sex offenders “prey on our children like animals’’ is revealed chatting about a teen getting “horny.’’
And a sponsor of laws against Internet exploitation is reincarnated as every parent’s nightmare: the lewd older man talking to their boy until he signs off—brb—to finish his English homework.
Remember the last presidential campaign, when the religious right claimed the “values voters’’ as their own? Having insisted that values were partisan, the same Republicans are whining that value-busting is nonpartisan. This scandal, said brother Jeb Bush, “has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat. It’s just wrong.’’
Indeed in a dizzying move, the right-wing spinmeisters are trying to blame Foley’s pathological follies on “political correctness.’’ The ever-agile Newt Gingrich was first to suggest that Hastert held back from chastising Foley out of fear he’d be “accused of gay-bashing’’ because Foley was long assumed to be gay. Who knew that Hastert was a closet liberal?
Next, after days of stunned silence, the religious right also found its familiar voice. They chimed in to blame, yes, “tolerance.’’ Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council accused “a society that rejects sexual restraints in the name of diversity’’ and a Republican leadership that puts “political correctness ... ahead of protecting children.’’ Said Perkins, “when we hold up tolerance and diversity ... this is what you end up getting.’’
Who would have dreamed that the same party that ran the 2004 campaign as a crusade against gay marriage would suffer from an overdose of acceptance for homosexuality? Is it any wonder that in all this confusion a Fox News screenshot misidentified Foley as a Democrat?
As for Mark Foley himself? This is a man with one foot in the closet, a man who only publicly acknowledged his sexuality this week from a rehab facility and through a lawyer. For over a decade Foley dodged questions about being gay, describing them as “revolting and unforgivable.’’ Now he says he was abused as a child by a clergyman. Can it be that the problem behind his double life was too much tolerance and diversity?
I remember when Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania blamed the Catholic priest pedophilia scandal on the blueness of Boston, “a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America.’’ You can no more label homosexuals as predators than you can label milkmen as murderers of Amish schoolgirls. But you can try.
The Republicans have been all too successful in getting a hold on the language and politics of values. There isn’t a parent is this country who doesn’t wince at and worry about the sexualization of children all over the culture, from the clothing racks to the Internet. But the right has grabbed onto the free-floating anxiety and attached it to everything on their agenda from abstinence-only education to the dismissal of a Texas teacher for taking her kids to a museum that had nude statues.
Now we are beginning to get “it.’’ The self-proclaimed party of moral values can’t keep its own House in order. The Republicans in charge of too much for too long have one value they now hold above all others: staying in power. Got it? Well, that’s a start.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.