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The current crisis arrived with a sex scandal that has muddied one of the G.O.P.'s few remaining patches of moral high ground: its defense of family values and personal accountability. Although Hastert and other Republican leaders say they heard last fall about the "overfriendly" approaches of a not-so-secretly-gay Congressman to a 16-year-old former page--both majority leader John Boehner and campaign chairman Tom Reynolds say they brought it up with Hastert last spring--they insist they never imagined anything like the more graphic instant messages that subsequently came to light. Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden said his boss was told only that there had been "contact" between Foley and a page, and that his knowledge of even that much came from a fleeting conversation on the House floor. But shouldn't someone have got chills at learning that a 52-year-old man had sent a teenager a creepy e-mail asking for a "pic of you"? Certainly the page understood what the e-mail meant, which is why he forwarded it in August 2005 to the office of Louisiana Congressman Rodney Alexander, who had sponsored him for the page program and who was alarmed enough to take his concern to Boehner. "This freaked me out," the teenager wrote. "Sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick."
The House response was political from the start. Last November, Jeff Trandahl, then clerk of the House, told John Shimkus, the Republican head of the board that oversees the page program, about the less incriminating e-mails. But nobody bothered to inform the board's lone Democrat. Shimkus and Trandahl appear to have done nothing more than give Foley a private warning. When Alexander expanded the circle of those aware of the e-mails the following spring, one of the two people he chose to loop in was Reynolds, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose job is managing the election. Foley wasn't even stripped of his co-chairmanship of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.
Even after a batch of truly sleazy instant messages was discovered by ABC News, Reynolds' chief of staff Kirk Fordham, who was also a former aide to Foley, tried to solve the political problem by attempting to talk the network out of publishing the worst of the messages. Fordham resigned last week, but he didn't go quietly, the way House leaders had hoped. On his way out, he threw fuel on the political fire by announcing that he had warned Hastert's staff of Foley's "inappropriate behavior" at least three years ago--a charge that Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, denied.
All this suggests that the Republican leaders were motivated much more by fear of electoral fallout than concern for the young pages in their care. And if they were worried that the revelation would hurt their chances of holding on to the House, they turned out to be right. Before the scandal broke, they were beginning to believe that the clouds were finally clearing for them. Their fabled get-out-the-vote and fund-raising operations were nearing full stride just as gas prices were dropping and the national debate was refocusing on their home-court issue of terrorism.