October 16, 2006

Mark Foley vs. Gerry Studds

My newest briefing for The Week is everything you need to know about Congressional pages. For the sidebar, I wrote about Gerry Studds, which was apparently the straw that broke the camel's back.

In the week before his death, Republican apologists were all over Studds like, well, a Congressman on a page. Krauthammer set the tone:

IN 1983, REPRESENTATIVE GERRY Studds, Democrat of Massachusetts, admitted to having sex with a 17-year-old male page. He was censured by the House of Representatives. During the vote, which he was compelled by House rules to be present for, Studds turned his back on the House to show his contempt for his colleagues' reprimand. He was not expelled from the Democratic Caucus. In fact, he was his party's nominee in the next election in his district--and the next five after that--winning reelection each time. He remained in the bosom of the Democratic Caucus in the House for the next 13 years.

In 2006, Republican congressman Mark Foley was found to have been engaged in lurid sexual Internet correspondence with a 16-year-old House page. There is no evidence yet of his ever laying a hand on anyone, let alone having sex with a page. When discovered, he immediately resigned. Had he not, says Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, "I would have demanded his expulsion." Not only is Foley gone, but half the Republican House leadership has been tarred. Hastert himself came within an inch of political extinction.

Am I missing something? There seems to be an odd difference in the disposition of the two cases. By any measure, what Studds did was worse. By any measure, his treatment was infinitely more lenient.

Thanks for throwing in what you thought was a rhetorical question, CK, because, yes, you are missing something.

At least I think so. My reaction here is limited by the fact that back in 1983, the press was apparently less willing to dig deep into a sex scandal. I've looked at a bunch of articles from the time and here's the gist of what I learned about the Studds Affair.

In 1973, when he was 36, Studds had a relationship with a 17-year-old male page that lasted for several months and included a trip abroad and three nights of sex, the first one preceeded by drinking "Cape Codders," which is what the gays call vodka and cranberry juice. Ten years later, the page testified to the House Ethics Committee that Studds "was an intelligent, witty, gentle man with, I think, a high level of insecurity. He did nothing to me which I would consider destructive or painful. In another time, in another society, the action would be acceptable, perhaps even laudable. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I have no ax to grind with him. I have nothing negative to say about the man. In fact, I thought that he provided me with one of the more wonderful experiences of my life, if we exclude the instances of sexual experience which I was somewhat uncomfortable with. But I did not think it was that big a deal."

Here's what I was shocked not to be able to learn: whether Studds ever had a similar relationship with any other page, or any other barely legal (the age of consent is 16 in DC) boy. Somehow it just never came up. Given that the 73 affair was exposed during a thorough investigation ten years later (which also tripped up a hetero congressman), I'm going to assume that this means Studds' "very serious error in judgment" (his words) was a one-time thing. A case of a young man falling for a much younger one and inappropriately exploiting the power imbalance between them.

Without letting Studds off the hook, I'm comfortable saying that this is the measure by which what Foley did is much worse than what Studds did. Because Foley didn't fall for a single boy; he repeatedly and wantonly treated all male pages as targets to be groomed and pressured into quasi (and probably actual) sexual relationships. He manipulated them and, yes, preyed on them without any regard for their personhood. When they aged out, he moved on to the next batch. There is ample evidence that many pages found Foley, as one put it, "sick, sick, sick, sick, sick." Throw in the hypocrisy of all this coming from a man who worked hard to demonize and criminalize the very behavior in which he was engaging, and I don't see how you can say that Studds behavior was nearly as bad. Of course Studds was wrong to use his office as leverage for initiating a sexual relationship with a youngster who was more or less in his charge. And there's an argument that the age of consent in DC is too low (though not, as Matthew Yglesias has strikingly pointed out, "pedophilia" low). But if in fact his was a single slip-up, I think censuring and moving on was the appropriate action, while it's equally clear that Foley should never be allowed near Congressional pages again.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


When John McCain beats Barack Obama to death on the Senate floor and Democrats urge an investigation Krauthammer will tell us they are forgetting how leniently the party treated Preston Brooks.

Actually what I think Krauthammer is missing is that Foley's own party is forced to take a hard line against him because the repercussions from their conservative base would be dire if they didn't (if that horse is even still in the barn). Clearly other Democrats didn't feel the same pressure back in their districts over Studds. If they had they would have cut him loose in a heartbeat.

Republicans aren't currently being sanctioned by Democrats for something the left gave a pass to twenty years ago. Republicans are being sanctioned by their own constituents--cultural conservatives who now think the politicians they helped put in office are hypocrites.

Also, as you point out, the sex scandal landscape is quite different now and the GOP had a major hand in that.

That said, I do think Studds should have been sanctioned more harshly. Whether his actions are worse than Foley's or not is irrelevant. The kid was in high school and if Studds had been a teacher who did that to a student ("single slip-up" or no) he'd be fired on the spot just for starters.

I don't care if the old men are liberal or conservative, gay or straight, or if the pages are 15, 16, or 17. Keep your stinking hands off my kid.

Clearly other Democrats didn't feel the same pressure back in their districts over Studds.

Well, I think CK's larger point is precisely that Democrats (as voters, not just officeholders) have lower morals than Republicans, which is why they continued to support Studds while Republicans turned on Foley.

I respect your harder line on Studds, but the teacher analogy isn't perfect. Teachers are hired precisely to educate young people, a mission which is in direct conflict with seducing them. Congressmen are elected to legislate and just happen to have young people thrown into their milieu via this weird page program. Again, they should know enough to keep their hands to themselves, but it's not quite the same level of betrayal of trust, unless it becomes a pattern.

From a pure logical perspective, it's true the teacher analogy is not 100% appropriate. But then again, the Democrats introduced that meme very pointedly, so I think we have to consider it fair game in a discussion of pointing fingers.

Well, I think CK's larger point is precisely that Democrats (as voters, not just officeholders) have lower morals than Republicans

You're right but the larger problem for Republicans is that the scandal could cause their base to question their sincerity on cultural issues and they might stay home next month. Perhaps what CK is missing is that Foley's fate was sealed by politics as much as morality. (If they were really so offended by his behavior they would have booted him years ago.)

Although I do enjoy ideologues arguing over whose pervs are more reprehensible.

As for the aptness of the teacher analogy, I think you're splitting the pubic hairs on Clarence Thomas's Coke. The issues are exactly the same--abuse of power and unwanted sexual advances. If my kid were a high school junior and the 40-year-old manager of the Chipotle around the corner took her money for a Burrito Bowl and then asked her for a handjob I'd expect him to lose his job, too. What part of don't have sex with my kid is so hard to understand? If parents are going to put their kids up in a DC dormitory at the behest of the government the least they should be able to count on is that the Congressmen keep their hands out of the teen bait bucket.

If they can't guarantee that then eliminate the page program but I don't want to hear any "Congressmen will be congressmen" crap.

Daniel, I received my copy of The Week and read your excellent briefing, but it led me to one more thought on the subject. Or a clarification anyway. In arguing that Foley's behavior was "much worse" than Studds, you say that many pages called him "sick." No argument. But in The Week you also note that "many pages are personally fond of Foley, one of the few congressmen who regularly acknowledged them." I'd argue that any powerful person who takes sexual advantage of young people who are craving their attention should be thrown out on his ass at a minimum. That would apply equally to Foley, Studds, and Dan Crane (the Republican who slept with a 17-year-old female page and who also received only censure).

Also you say that the page involved in the Studds scandal, even while defending his relationship with Studds, said he "would have preferred not to have sex." It's been a long time since my RA orientation in college but I'm trying to think of another situation where a teenager succumbs to an unwanted sexual advance from a man more than twice his age (never mind a United States Congressman) and that isn't called rape.

Am I missing something now?

I'm trying to think of another situation where a teenager succumbs to an unwanted sexual advance from a man more than twice his age (never mind a United States Congressman) and that isn't called rape.

Here's one: any time it happens in Washington DC, Virginia, or any of the numerous other places where the age of consent is 16 (or, come to think of it, any time it happens anywhere with 18 or 19 year olds, who are also technically teenagers). Now, I did say that one could make the argument that the AoC in those states should be raised. Frankly, I'd like to see them made smarter: say, 15 as long as the age difference is less than 5 years; 18 otherwise. The whole point of these laws is that at a certain age, young men and women are considered capable of saying no to unwanted sexual advances. Since the 17yo page consented, against his own best judgment or not, it's certainly not legally rape. (that "would have prefered not to have sex" is a paraphrase -- perhaps too strong? -- of the sentiment I quoted above, "which I was somewhat uncomfortable with.")

I also said from the outset that since we don't actually have many details of the Studds incident, all of my commentary is made under the assumption of a best-case scenario for him. That he was not (like Foley) looking for ways to abuse his power; that he formed a genuine and mutual bond with the page; that the page was not craving attention and approval, etc. I don't know if that's true, and if it isn't, it should have been in the news at the time.

As for your Chipoltle example, that manager would lose his job no matter what age the person he propositioned was, because companies have strict rules about what you can and can not say to customers. Rules for elected officials are more amorphous, defined and enforced by the will of the electorate. A pretty damn close parallel to your Chipoltle story would be, say, a governor cornering an employee 20 years his junior in a hotel room, dropping his pants and telling her to "kiss it." Should this hypothetical governor get the boot or a promotion? That's up to voters.

Of course, there are many workplaces that forbid all sexual contact between employees and those under their supervision. To the extent that Congress has such rules, its mechanism for dealing out punishment is for the ethics committee to make a recommendation and for the full body to vote. The House voted for censure rather than impeachment, so at a minimum we can say that more congresspeople agree with me than with you (for all that's worth). Had Foley not resigned, I suspect he would have been impeached, not (just) because times have changed, but because I think most members would similarly agree with me that his behavior was worse. After that, the representative's constituents have the final say. Crane's turned on him; Studds's did not. Hence CK's argument: that the P-town dems have no morals and hate children. (It'll be interesting to see what happens with Kolbe.)

Possibly Congress could pass a rule mandating expulsion for anyone caught behaving inappropriately with a page, but I happen to think that even the best-intentioned one-size-fits-all zero tolerance policies are inferior to case-by-case deliberations. And when it comes to themselves, if not to the rest of us, so do congresspeople.

Clearly no one cares about this except me, but as long as I'm using my open laptop to keep a six-week old from sliding off the coffee table, a couple more things:

I suppose I'm guilty of using the definition of rape presented at Take Back the Night rallies as opposed to the one taught at accredited law schools, but certainly Studds (and the others) is guilty of, at a minimum, sexual coercion as opposed to a "voluntary, private relationship between adults." I think you're still soft-pedaling the severity of it.

However, you demonstrate a refreshing lack of cynicism when you suggest that Congressmen adjudicated the affairs of Studds and Crane and Foley on the merits, and that they weren't just following through on a Faustian gentlemen's agreement to ignore each other's sexcapading right up until the moment when doing so becomes politically untenable. Surely they were all shocked and outraged when Crane's and Studd's behavior was finally brought to their attention. I'm sure Mr. Krauthammer can confirm that the instant morally superior Republicans became aware of Foley's "sickness" they swung into action like Batmans in the middle of a deadly riddle epidemic.

You rally from behind, though, by suggesting that we hold fast-food managers to a higher ethical standard than United States Congressmen. The Chipotle employee would be fired because the restaurant (honorably) takes responsibility for his behavior while he is on the job. Shouldn't Congress take similar responsibility for its members when they abuse teenagers participating in a program sponsored by Congress? It seems to me they have twice the responsibilty not half. Frankly, they were being cowards back then when they abdicated that responsibility and let those assholes run for reelection.

Arrgh. You made me agree with Krauthammer. That was your plan all along, wasn't it?

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