House Republicans on Foley: Heads, meet sand

Maybe they didn't know about other messages to other pages. But did they even try to find out?

Published October 2, 2006 9:10PM (EDT)

When it comes to terrorism and threats from other countries, Republicans in the House and everywhere else talk a lot about the need to take things seriously, to stop potential dangers before they become real, to be right 100 percent of the time. But when it came to a threat from a potential sexual predator in their midst? Not so much.

House Republicans responded to news that Mark Foley had a creepy interest in a 16-year-old page by talking among themselves and then asking Foley whether everything was copacetic. Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander contacts Republican House Speaker Hastert's office. Hastert's office tells Alexander's office to tell House Clerk Jeff Trandahl. Trandahl tells Republican Rep. John Shimkus, the chairman of the House Page Board. Shimkus doesn't tell Rep. Dale Kildee , the only Democrat on the House Page Board. So far as we can tell, he also fails to tell the House sergeant at arms, the law enforcement officer who sits on the House Page Board.

So what did Shimkus do? He says he took "immediate action" to investigate what he'd been told about Foley. And what was that "immediate action"? Shimkus and Trandahl ask Foley about the e-mail exchange. Foley says it's nothing. Shimkus and Trandahl tell him to leave the kid alone and to be mindful of his contacts with pages in the future.

End of story, case close -- except that somewhere along the way, Republican Congressional Campaign Committee chief Tom Reynolds tell Republican House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert about the email exchange. They don't do anything, either, and Haster tells CNN this afternoon that, while he doesn't dispute that Reynolds told him about Foley, he honestly doesn't remember having had a conversation about it.

It reminds us of the time that Saddam Hussein insisted that he didn't have WMD, and the Republicans in Washington said, "Well, all right then," and got back to the business of fighting terrorism. Or the time that Bill Clinton said that he didn't have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky, and all those House GOPers took him at his word and dropped the matter right there.


Maybe hindsight is 20-20, but it strikes us as too easy for Hastert to throw up his hands and say that, because nobody in the GOP knew about the sexually explicit IM messages Foley had been sending, nobody in the GOP could possibly be responsible for not doing more about him sooner. Foley's conduct was apparently something of an open secret among former pages. Did Shimkus or Trandahl ask any of them if they'd ever received inappropriate communications from a member of Congress or if they'd heard of anyone who did? Did they ask anyone who knows about such things whether Foley's "over-friendly" e-mail messages amounted to a warning sign of more dangerous behavior? (Right-wing pundit Bay Buchanan may not be an expert in sexual deviancy, but she tells CNN that the initial e-mail exchange had "predator stamped all over it.") Did they even ask Foley about communications he might have had with other pages?

It seems pretty clear that they did not. Shimkus, who ought to have felt some obligation to protect both the young pages and the integrity of the body in which they served, plainly thought his role was to hide in his office and hope that no bad news ever reached his doorstep. "I received no subsequent complaints about [Foley's] behavior," he says, "nor was I ever made aware of any additional emails."

Fair enough, Congressman. But did you ask?

Maybe Shimkus and Trandahl and Reynolds and Hastert wouldn't have learned anything more if they'd performed something resembling an actual investigation after they received word of Foley's emails. But within a day after ABC News put them out on the Web, former pages began coming out of the woodwork with much more serious stories about Foley. Isn't it at least possible that Shimkus and Trandahl and Reynolds and Hastert would have heard about those stories sooner if they'd done even a little bit of probing? Didn't they have a moral obligation to try?

By Tim Grieve

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

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