"It's the cover-up, not the crime." This phrase — the lesson of Watergate and the Nixon years — always struck me as odd.
The crime is the original offense, the breaking of the law. The cover-up aids and abets the criminal, but only after the crime has been committed. Yet the phrase suggests the cover-up is worse than the crime.
But in the scandal of Republican Rep. Mark Foley and his predatory exchanges with teenage boys who were in the House page program, the phrase begins to make some moral sense. Mark Foley was clearly a deeply conflicted man — gay yet living in the closet as a leader of a Republican Party that employs gay bashing to divide the electorate. Surely his bizarre behavior — his belief that he would not be exposed for aggressive use of graphic e-mails, which one page rightfully termed "sick, sick, sick" — suggests someone simply out of control.
But far more cynical are his Republican colleagues who knew something was amiss but chose to cover it up. Each day, that cover-up unravels. Speaker Dennis Hastert's claim that he didn't know anything about Foley's behavior until the week he resigned is simply not believable.
We've now learned that Foley's behavior towards the pages was whispered about Republican cloakrooms for years. Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe admits he knew of Foley's sexually explicit Internet exchanges as far back as 2000.
Kirk Fordham, then Foley's chief of staff and later that of the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, says he was told by the clerk of the House in 2003 about complaints by pages about Foley's behavior — apparently a drunken effort to enter the page dormitory after curfew. Fordham says he told Hastert's Chief of Staff, Scott Palmer, about the complaints; Palmer denies that took place.
In the fall of 2005, Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander was asked by parents of another page to get Foley to stop contacting their son. Alexander's office informed Hastert's office, and Hastert's counsel and deputy chief of staff were informed. The clerk of the House and Rep. John Shimkus, chair of the House Page Board, told Foley he should cease communication with the teenager. Again, the bipartisan committee overseeing the program was ignored.
By the spring of 2006, Hastert again was warned by at least one legislator. Reynolds, head of the congressional committee, and Rep. John Boehner are warned by Alexander. Reynolds and Boehner say that they told Hastert, which Hastert says he does not remember.
Hastert's aide, Mike Stokke, said he was aware that Foley had been "overfriendly" with the pages a year ago. Even though Stokke and Palmer shared a townhouse with Hastert on Capitol Hill and flew back with him to Illinois virtually every weekend, they claim that they did not tell each other or Hastert about Foley's troubles. And if you believe that … .
Why would Hastert, Reynolds and other Republicans choose to sit on the information, rather than taking it to a bipartisan committee and launching a complete investigation? That seems clear: Republicans were struggling to strengthen their slim hold on the House majority.
Foley was a valuable asset — he was a safe incumbent and a leading fund-raiser. Rather than lose an asset and face political embarrassment, they chose to cover up the problem. The risk posed to the young boys was deemed less important than their own political fortunes.
The cover-up exposes just how corrupted conservatives have become in power. And the reaction to the scandal is equally revealing. The right-wing "family values" conservative spokespeople have been remarkably silent. Many of the right's propagandists — Limbaugh, Hannity and others — have marched to Republican talking points, trying to foist the blame on Democrats. Hastert, bizarrely, has charged that the news media and liberal groups exposed Foley for political purposes. Like Nixon, he regrets only that he got caught, not that he was part of an effort to cover up what may well be a crime.
Hastert refuses to resign. President Bush, congressional Republicans, conservative evangelical leaders and the talk show clique have rallied around him. Last week in Chicago, Bush joined Hastert at a fund-raiser for two Republican candidates.
Will the leaders of the cover-up be held accountable? Clearly, that will be left to the voters.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.