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1987Why the Foley scandal is no “October Surprise”

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  • Greg Cannon
    Oct 10, 2006

      Republicans Want to Turn Over a New Page
      The Foley scandal is no “October Surprise”
      Posted on Tuesday, October 10, 2006. By Ken

      Leading Republicans, with the support of conservative
      media outlets, are charging that the Mark Foley
      scandal was a plot orchestrated by Democrats to damage
      the G.O.P.'s electoral prospects this November.
      According to the Washington Post, House Speaker J.
      Dennis Hastert appeared on Rush Limbaugh's radio show
      and “agreed when the host said the Foley story was
      driven by Democrats ‘in some sort of cooperation with
      some in the media’ to suppress turnout of conservative
      voters” before the midterm elections.

      Conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt has said that
      Hastert had become the “target right now of the
      left-wing media machine,” and House Majority Leader
      John Boehner has charged that the release of the Foley
      documents so close to the elections “is concerning, at
      a minimum.” Meanwhile, accounts I've heard about the
      FBI's initial inquiries suggest the bureau is as
      interested in uncovering how the story came to public
      attention as it is in investigating Foley's actions.

      The Republican leadership is lying when they claim
      that Democrats have engineered an “October Surprise”;
      there was never a plan undermine the G.O.P. or to
      destroy Hastert personally, as the speaker has
      vaingloriously suggested. I know this with absolute
      certainty because Harper’s was offered the story
      almost five months ago and decided, after much debate,
      not to run it here on Washington Babylon.

      In May, a source put me in touch with a Democratic
      operative who provided me with the now-infamous emails
      that Foley had sent in 2004 to a sixteen-year-old
      page. He also provided several emails that the page
      sent to the office of Congressman Rodney Alexander, a
      Louisiana Republican who had sponsored him when he
      worked on Capitol Hill. “Maybe it is just me being
      paranoid, but seriously, This freaked me out,” the
      page wrote in one email. In the fall of 2005, my
      source had provided the same material to the St.
      Petersburg Times—and I presume to The Miami
      Herald—both which decided against publishing stories.

      It was a Democrat who brought me the emails, but
      comments he made and common sense strongly suggest
      they were originally leaked by a Republican office.
      And while it's entirely possible that Democratic
      officials became aware of the accusations against
      Foley, the source was not working in concert with the
      national Democratic Party. This person was genuinely
      disgusted by Foley's behavior, amazed that other
      publications had declined to publish stories about the
      emails, and concerned that Foley might still be
      seeking contact with pages.

      Though the emails were not explicitly sexual, I felt
      strongly that Foley's behavior was inappropriate and
      that his intentions were clear. Why would a
      middle-aged man ask a teenager he barely knew for his
      photograph, or what he wanted for his birthday? I
      contacted Foley and he strongly denied any ill intent.
      He told me there was “nothing suggestive or
      inappropriate” about his emails to the page, adding
      that if the page “was intimidated, that's

      My theory about the emails was that Foley was throwing
      out bait to see if the teen would bite. I spoke to a
      Foley staffer who violently rejected that
      interpretation of the emails and who blamed the whole
      problem on the page, saying it was all a
      misunderstanding due to the young boy's overactive
      imagination. The staffer also said that Foley's motive
      in asking the page for a picture was entirely
      innocent: he merely wanted an image of the boy so he
      could remember him more clearly in the event that he
      wanted a job recommendation down the road. Needless to
      say, none of this sounded even remotely convincing.

      I tried to contact the page who received Foley's
      emails and the boy’s parents, but got no reply to my
      inquiries. However, I did speak with another former
      page who'd had an unsettling encounter with Foley. “He
      was a lot more friendly than you'd expect a
      congressman to be,” this page told me. “He acted like
      he was a kid himself.” The former page said that on
      one occasion when he was still working on the Hill,
      Foley asked him and another page if he could accompany
      them to the gym, an invitation they declined because
      it made them uncomfortable. When the page mentioned
      the incident to a congressional intern who worked with
      the page program, he was told that Foley had a history
      of being too friendly with the pages, and it was
      suggested that it would be better to avoid Foley in
      the future.

      Congressman Alexander's office declined to comment on
      the matter, apart from issuing a brief statement
      emailed to me on May 31 by press secretary Adam Terry:
      “When these emails were brought to our attention last
      year our office reviewed them and decided that it
      would be best to contact the individual's parents.
      This decision, on behalf of our office, was based on
      the sensitivity of the issue. Our office did, in fact,
      contact the parents, and we feel that they (the
      juvenile's parents) should decide the best course of
      action to take concerning the dialogue outlined in the
      emails.” I had a number of other questions I wanted to
      ask—for example, although the ex-page's parents were
      understandably concerned about their son's name coming
      out in the press, didn't Alexander's office have an
      obligation to make sure that Foley was not hitting on
      other kids?—but Terry did not reply to further
      requests for comment.

      The final draft of my story—which did not name the
      ex-page who received Foley's emails—was set to run on
      June 2. “Foley's private life should, under most
      circumstances, be his own business, but in this case
      there is a clear question about his behavior with a
      minor and a congressional employee,” went the story’s
      conclusion. “The possibility that he might have used
      his personal power or political position in
      inappropriate ways, as the emails suggest, should be
      brought to public attention.”

      We decided against publishing the story because we
      didn't have absolute proof that Foley was, as one
      editor put it, “anything but creepy.” At the time I
      was disappointed that the story was killed—but I must
      confess that I was also a bit relieved because there
      had been the possibility, however unlikely, that I
      would wrongly accuse Foley of improper conduct.

      While Harper’s decided not to publish the story, we
      weren't entirely comfortable with the decision. A few
      weeks later I passed along the emails and related
      materials to several people who were in a position to
      share them with other media outlets. I subsequently
      learned that other people had the same information and
      were also contacting reporters. (By this point, my
      original source apparently had given up on getting the
      media to cover the story.)

      Among those who received information about the story
      but declined to pursue it were liberal outlets such as
      Talkingpointsmemo.com, Americablog.com, and The New
      Republic (The Hill, Roll Call, and Time magazine also
      had the Foley story, though I'm not certain when it
      came to their attention.) [Update, October 10, 2006
      2:00PM: Talking Points Memo did not have access to the
      emails—and it's possible that other publications named
      here did not either—but all, at minimum, were aware of
      the salient facts of the case.] Ironically, it was
      ABC—which just weeks ago was being defended by
      Republicans and attacked by Democrats for airing The
      Path to 9/11—that finally ran the story. The network
      obtained the emails from a person who is scrupulously

      That was my experience of the Foley affair.

      If this was all a plot to hurt the G.O.P.’s chances in
      the midterm elections, why did the original source for
      the story begin approaching media outlets a full year
      ago? If either of the Florida papers had gone to press
      with the story last year, or if Harper's had published
      this spring, as the source hoped, the Foley scandal
      would have died down long ago. A stronger case could
      be made that the media, including Harper’s, dropped
      the ball and inadvertently protected Foley and covered
      up evidence of the congressman’s misconduct.

      The source who brought me the story didn't see it as a
      grand piece of electioneering. He viewed it as a story
      about one individual, Mark Foley, and his
      inappropriate and disturbing behavior with teenagers.
      The G.O.P. and its friends in the media are trying to
      concoct a conspiracy in order to divert attention from
      the failure of Republican officials to deal properly
      with Foley.

      It is now absolutely clear that Foley was indeed a
      menace to kids working on Capitol Hill. In seeking to
      malign the parties who sought to expose his conduct,
      top Republicans reveal that they are far more outraged
      by the possibility that the scandal might harm their
      party’s prospects in November than they are by Foley's

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