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The Foley follies

THE OTHER DAY I was reading a lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal complaining that the Mark Foley scandal had drowned out more substantive matters. “The war on terror, and Iraq, really are the largest issues in front of the American people,” urged the editors. “We need a clear reading on that in November, not on the personal ruin of Mark Foley.”

Upon reading this, my first reaction was to laugh hysterically while pounding the table with my fist. In case you don’t get the joke, the Journal editorial page devoted most of the 1990s to fervently hyping up sundry Bill Clinton scandals, from a murky land deal in Arkansas to the firing of the staff of the all-important White House travel office to, of course, Clinton’s tawdry sex life. The Journal published so many editorials on these personal scandals that it compiled them into a book, “Whitewater,” that reached a staggering 541 pages. Then it proceeded to write enough subsequent scandal editorials to fill up five more books of comparable length. Now, though, it wants an earnest forum on the issues. To which I say: ha, ha, ha.

After having a good laugh, though, I had to say -- flaming hypocrisy aside -- the Journal has a bit of a point. The Foley scandal is obscene, and it does involve public officials, but I wouldn’t call it terribly important.

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No, I don’t think it’s OK for members of Congress to prey upon teenagers. And yes, I find it disturbing that the Republican leadership apparently ignored warning signals in order to avoid a potential scandal. But, really, how high does management of the congressional page program rank on the list of issues before the public? Not very high, I submit. The number of people affected is tiny. The main perpetrator, Foley, has already been drummed out of public life.

If you were planning to vote Republican before the Foley scandal hit, I’d have suggested that you’re seriously misguided. But if you changed your mind on the basis of the Foley scandal, you’re even more misguided. There is a vast gulf separating the Democrats and the Republicans over public policy matters that affect hundreds of millions of people. Voting on the basis of how they handle a few teenagers is just silly.

So we should base our vote on bigger issues. But what issues would these be? After the last election, President Bush and his supporters insisted that they had won a mandate to partially privatize Social Security, and some are vowing to carry through after November. Shall we ask the voters to hinge their decision based on that? How about the Republican management of economic issues, which polls dismally?

No, the Journal suggests two other issues. One is Iraq. Republicans, of course, don’t really want the public to vote on their handling of what now appears to be the greatest foreign policy disaster since Washington was burned to the ground in the War of 1812. What they want is to turn Iraq into a more vague debate on the Journal’s second proposed issue, the war on terror.

It is true that Republicans have a certain advantage here, largely due to the fact that it was their man who occupied the Oval Office at a moment five years ago when Americans desperately wanted to believe they had a wise and great leader to rally around. The only “issue” related to the war on terror is a phony one: Bush repeatedly insists that Democrats don’t want to let the government listen in on terrorists, when in fact they merely want to do the espionage legally rather than in the ad-hoc, extralegal fashion Bush prefers.

If you look at the actual issues related to terrorism, it’s hard to imagine why anybody would vote Republican. Just last week, Bob Woodward (whose last book, it should be noted, was eagerly promoted by the GOP for its flattering portrayal of Bush) revealed that thenNational Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was warned by CIA Director George Tenet in July 2001 of an imminent Al Qaeda attack and did nothing. It was yet another devastating indictment of the administration’s failure to act on what by late summer 2001 had become massive evidence of an imminent threat. Alas, this news item was mostly drowned out by the Foley scandal. So yes, by all means, let’s have a “clear reading” on the issues.

jchait@latimescolumnists.com


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