War, Schmor, How About Mark Foley!

Congressman Mark Foley over FBI Seal
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Approximately 2,720 American soldiers have died in Iraq, but the tipping point in the 2006 elections may well be scandal of a little-known Republican congressman from Florida named Mark Foley. Do ironies come any bigger?

The American attention span for news is short — and getting shorter. Remember that war between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon? It was just six weeks ago when Israel withdrew its troops — but the war, the source of soaring oil prices and apocalyptic headlines, has receded fully from our attention and media.

Perhaps the same will happen with Mark Foley's depravity and its extended cover-up by the Republican leadership of the House. A month is seven months in the news equivalent of dog years. Who knows what will be hot off the presses in early November?

Obviously, conditions are fertile for Republicans to get blasted on Election Day — fertile, not perfect. If Foley is the straw that breaks the Republicans' back, it will be for several reasons.

Foley's scandal fits the modern archetype better than any other and thus it's memorable.

First, the hypocrisy: The man poses as a protector of children from perverts and abusers, yet he is, at the very least, an online pervert and an on-campus lech. He is like a non-lethal John Wayne Gacy, the Chicago serial killer who worked as a clown at kiddies' parties to lure his victims.

Second, the phony repentance: The second he's nabbed, the man enters rehab, though no one can recall him drinking much. "At nights," his lawyer said. Then Foley sends the same lawyer out to announce, with courage and great candor, that he — shock of shock — was abused as an adolescent. By a clergymen no less! And finally, Foley bravely declared through his ventriloquist lawyer that he is a "gay man." As opposed to what? A gay raccoon?

We have never seen such a pure example of the Modern Repent By Being A Victim Scam. Defense lawyers and campaign consultants will use Foley in textbooks for years to come for audacity, if not efficacy.

The Foley scandal may also have legs because of the cover-up. Speaker Dennis Hastert and assorted House leaders, aides and officials may or may not have known precisely how raunchy some of Foley's online action was. But they heard the scuttlebutt and had plenty of solid information to at least discipline the guy formally, which is what would happen in any American business. They probably knew enough to get rid of him. Instead, they pulled the "hear no evil, see no evil" routine.

To their credit, the cover-up has disgusted many hardcore Republican boosters, including The Washington Times and a host of conservative "social values" groups and leaders. They've pulled no punches and many have called for Hastert to resign.

Will this be enough to keep some Republicans away from the voting booths, too disenchanted to make the effort? Will this be enough to swing some undecideds? Will it tip the balance of control?

The last change of control in the House came in 1994. It was preceded by about a decade's worth of Democratic scandals. There were the resignations of Speaker Jim Wright, Tony Coelho and William Gray, and then the long-simmering post office and check-bouncing scandals.

The Republican scandal tsunami has been building for a long while, too. First, Newt Gingrich resigned just a few years after leading his bloodless coup. Bob Livingston quit after being Speaker for about an hour. Vocal family values guys Dan Burton and Henry Hyde had to 'fess up to extra-marital exploits, Tom DeLay got himself indicted and now prosecutors are working their way down Jack Abramoff's payola list.

If anything, the Foley scandals have proven that corruption -- moral and material -- is bipartisan. Given control of the House, both parties have proven themselves unworthy. Maybe it's "the system."

Much is different now, though, I am reminded by the shrewd newsletter sent around by Democratic political consultant Michael Berman. The Republicans have known they were in trouble for this entire election cycle; in 1994, the Democrats didn't know they were in trouble until they looked at the exit polls. In 1994, Gingrich had the party machine working with him; this year, the people running Democratic congressional campaigns are feuding with Howard Dean.

And, of course, there is a war being fought this year.

The war is fighting for attention with other great matters of state in the weeks preceding the elections.

At about 10:30 Wednesday morning, MSNBC was interviewing someone and the graphic on the screen said – and I quote – "Nudists Take On Foley."

Sometimes a graphic is worth a thousand words.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington, D.C.

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By Dick Meyer