“The past is a foreign country,” said British author L. P. Hartley, “they do things differently there.” True enough, but I wouldn’t have thought 23 years was long enough to get a time traveler out of state, much less to a different continent.
Twenty three years is the time that separates the censure of the late Democrat Congressman Gerry Studds and the resignation from Congress of Republican Mark Foley. Both cases involved sex scandals with Congressional pages.
In 1983 Studds was censured for having sex with a 17-year-old male page. This particular violation of Congressional decorum, not Washington D.C. law, had occurred ten years earlier. Studds conceded that intercourse with a minor page was “an error in judgment” but insisted that what happens in Congressional bedrooms should stay in those bedrooms.
Not only did Studds continue to serve in Congress (over the objection of Rep. Newt Gingrich), he was also reelected by his Massachusetts constituents—six times. There was no frenzied media demand to know what Speaker Tip O’Neill knew and when he knew it. (Ten years is a long time between indiscretion and punishment.) And there were certainly no serious calls for O’Neill’s resignation.
In 2006 Mark Foley immediately resigned after the outing of his instant message come-ons to pages. No physical relationship between Foley and the pages was alleged. A great hue and cry then ensued over Speaker Dennis Hastert’s oversight of the page program, and numerous calls were made for his resignation.
What happened in the two-plus decades that separated these incidents that accounts for the different responses?
One partisan observer suggested that the nation has become more sensitive about the safety of children in light of 24/7 news-channel stories featuring pedophile priests and on-line predators. If so, those sensitivities still aren’t applied to Representative Studds—who was recently eulogized as the first openly-gay Congressman and was repeatedly returned to office till he retired in 1996.
A more realistic assessment would point to 1994 as the watershed event that separates then and now. In November of that year Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. That historical observation is another way of saying that “politics” is behind the moral indignation that has been expressed in the last six weeks.
I’m sure most folks will be “shocked, shocked!” at the thought of politics taking place on Capitol Hill and in the media. A more important point is that so many politicos now view morality as a mere tool to secure what they really prize—political power. Unfortunately, “realists” who view moral principles this way have nothing but the “will to power” to guide them once they are in office.
That’s a phrase from the past that was popularized by Nietzsche and exhibited in spades by the Third Reich and Stalin.