The congressman and the page: Just creepy or "sick"?

Rep. Mark Foley has warned that the Internet provides pedophiles with an easy way to reach out to minors.

Published September 29, 2006 4:38PM (EDT)

We don't know what to make just yet of the e-mail messages Florida Rep. Mark Foley sent to a 16-year-old congressional page. As ABC News is reporting, Foley sent a series of messages in which he asked the former page how old he was, what he'd like for his birthday and "what stuff" he liked "to do."

Maybe Foley just took an appropriate if slightly creepy interest in the kid. Or maybe, as the page himself apparently believes, the messages were "sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick."

Foley's office says the e-mails -- which went out on Foley's personal account, not via his official congressional e-mail account-- were just Foley's way of responding to a thank-you note the page had given him. A campaign spokeswoman tells Florida's Herald-Tribune that the release of the e-mails now amounts to "a political attack and an attempt at the worst kind of character assassination" from people who want to see Democrat Tim Mahoney beat Foley in November. A Florida mental health counselor and consultant sees something darker. "What's most troubling to me is it's a peer letter. It's not an appropriate letter for a 52-year-old and a 16-year-old," Trisha Biggers Peterson tells the Herald-Tribune. "They're not age mates at all in any shape or form."

Like we said, we don't know what to think yet.

What we do know is this:

First, if it turns out that there's anything to the allegations about Foley, the congressman has certainly provided his critics with plenty of hoisting-on-his-own-petard material. In remarks delivered on Internet Safety Day -- who knew? -- in 2004, Foley warned that the Internet "provides a new medium for pedophiles to reach out to our most vulnerable citizens -- America's children." And in an interview with National Public Radio back in 2002, Foley, who co-chairs the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, complained that the Supreme Court had "sided with pedophiles over children" when it struck down a child pornography law. "I'm not a prude," Foley said in the NPR interview. "I have no problem with adult pornography. People are entitled to read it, watch it, see it in their homes or in public accommodations. Where I have to draw the line is using children for the excitement of those more mature people who should know the difference and know better."

Second, we know that Foley's interest in the young page -- whatever its nature -- doesn't necessarily mean that he's at the end of the road as a member of Congress. In 1983, the House censured Massachusetts Rep. Gerry Studds for having a sexual relationships with a 17-year-old male page. Studds was reelected the next year and served in Congress until 1996. Should that provide some comfort for Foley? Maybe. On the one hand, Foley hasn't actually been accused of having a sexual relationship with a minor. On the other hand, 2006 isn't 1983, and Florida isn't Massachusetts.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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