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Mark Foley’s Real Sin Was …: Breaking America’s Favorite Taboo

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

It’s a shame that ABC News broke the story of Representative Mark Foley’s lewd e-mail and instant messages to teenage pages. He would have made much better TV on Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” In the segments, the newsmagazine conducts elaborate pedophilia stings, using phony chat-room messages and underage-looking actresses to lure a parade of doctors, engineers and Marines to assignations in unassuming houses. There, guys with online handles like “sebastian_for_u” are surprised by reporter Chris Hansen, who grills and humiliates them before handing them over to cops. “Predator” is ratings gold, a jaw-dropping combination of public service and blood sport that lets viewers indulge their voyeurism righteously–like the Colosseum, if the lions were allowed to eat only the really, really evil Christians.

And it’s not alone. It is possible pretty much any night of the week to settle down on your couch for an evening of scaring the hell out of yourself over your kids. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Close to Home, Criminal Minds, Without a Trace: those are just a few of the hit crime shows that traffic in kids in jeopardy. And that’s not counting the Amber Alert marathons on cable news. Kids molested, kids abducted, kids stalked, kids beaten. Stay tuned at 11, and you can probably catch a local news report on perverts in your hometown, especially if it’s sweeps month.

There is a symbiosis between the culture of child anxiety and the politics of it. TV shows reap ratings off the fears of parents. The anxieties those shows stoke benefit politicians who campaign on law and order and who cast themselves as child protectors. Politicians like, say, Mark Foley, who made his political name as chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. “Now, more than ever,” Foley wrote with Senator Orrin Hatch in the Washington Times last year, “we need to stand together and unite cities, communities and states in the effort to stop the assault on America’s children.”

An assault on our children: that’s a consensus builder if ever there was one. Dateline’s targets deserve to be put away, and programs like it do a service by alerting parents to threats. And last week, which also saw the schoolhouse murders of five Amish girls by a stranger who evidently planned to rape his victims, the media could be forgiven its wall-to-wall weirdo watch. The problem is proportion. Strangers make up 7% of child molesters; the vast majority are family members. But you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. When stranger predators are everywhere on TV, it suggests that they are everywhere in the real world: in your schoolyard, roaming your street, and–especially–climbing the DSL line into your kids’ bedrooms as if it were an ivied trellis.

Of course, the “To Catch a Predator” culture is not what forced Foley out of office, and the possibility that Republicans enabled or covered up for him would be a scandal in any media age. But how big and broad an effect the scandal has on voters–that is very much a matter of how scared parents have become. It’s the difference between “The G.O.P. leadership messed up in a sex scandal” and “The G.O.P. leadership went soft on one of those monsters who are out there waiting to prey on my kids.”

And no one knows that better than the Republicans, who from Richard Nixon through the Willie Horton episode have campaigned as the law-and-order party. Now they face a backlash from the same culture of fear and suspicion they benefited from before. Casting yourself as the answer to an “assault” on children isn’t just a means of getting votes; it can also justify power grabs. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argued last month before a Senate committee that Internet service providers should be required to keep a massive database of their clients’ activity, ostensibly to track down child pornography. In 2002, Foley was furious when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to outlaw computer-generated animations–not actual video–that depict underage characters having sex. “The high court sided with pedophiles over children,” Foley blustered. Or it sided with, you know, the First Amendment. Tomato, tomahto.

Arguing in the name of “the children” is an irresistible device, and Republicans have no monopoly on it. (They would have to pry it from Hillary Clinton’s cold, dead hands.) But it’s also an uncontrollable force. In a media culture that focuses on the most lurid and scary–as opposed to the greatest–threats to kids, Republicans are suddenly at the mercy of a social force that used to work for them. In his disgrace as in his career, Foley has focused America on the most emotional of law-and-order issues–a little too well, perhaps, for the law-and-order party’s own good.

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