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  • « Inquiring minds want to know… | Main | The road to authenticity »

    October 04, 2006

    A 'thin gay line' to protect Foley?

    Posted by: Chris

    The unfolding Mark Foley scandal has thrust into the spotlight two Capitol Hill insiders who are gay, even though their sexual orientation has not yet become an issue.  The two men appear to be among the first who learned of Foley's problematic interest in congressional pages, and their actions (or inaction) will no doubt come to reflect not only on them, but gay people generally.

    Both Kirk Fordham, who was Foley's chief of staff for a decade, and Jeff Trandahl, who was clerk of the U.S. House from 1998 to 2005, have lived for years out of the closet, at least within Washington, D.C.'s, gay community.

    Fordham made headlines today when he resigned as chief of staff for New York Congressman Tom Reynolds, who heads up the GOP's effort to retain control of the House. Fordham insisted his reason for quitting was not to become a political drag on his boss, who is locked in a tight re-election battle and is coming under heat for how he dealt with early reports that Foley had sent an inappropriate e-mail to a teenage male in Louisiana who had been a congressional page. Fordham was Reynolds' top aide at the time, having left Foley's staff in January 2004.

    Fordham claimed in interviews today that he told a top aide for embattled House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as early as 2004 about Foley's overly familiar relationships with the teenage pages. Fordham said he learned about the issue from Trandahl, although at that point the concern was apparently over the Florida congressman's general rapport with the teens and not graphic Internet communications.

    Trandahl's name surfaces in the Foley timeline again in late 2005, when he and Rep. John Shimkus, the Illinois Republican who co-chairs the congressional page program, met with Foley to confront him about the email to the former page in Louisiana. Neither Shimkus nor Trandahl, who as clerk of the House worked for Hastert, informed the Democratic co-chair of the page program. And it's unclear whether Trandahl told Shimkus about the similar concerns about Foley's conduct that Trandahl raised with Fordham two years earlier.

    Trandahl and Shimkus were apparently convinced by Foley that the communication was innocuous and didn't further pursue the matter. What's unclear is whether Trandahl and Shimkus asked Foley whether he had other Internet communications with teenage pages or simply accepted his response at face value.

    As a longtime insider both on Capitol Hill and within Washington's gay community, Trandahl no doubt knew Foley was gay, making the e-mail to the Louisiana teen all the more suspicious and deserving of further inquiry. And since Trandahl had raised the issue with Fordham two years earlier, he knew the e-mail, which sought a photo of the teen, was not an isolated incident.

    The question now becomes whether Trandahl and Fordham were more concerned about protecting a sitting congressman (and Fordham's boss) than they were protecting the teenage pages. And GOP strategists, who rarely miss the opportunity to gay-bait, may well suggest that these gay aides (albeit from their own party) closed ranks to protect "one of their own," a line of argument that plays upon all sorts of fears about gay male predators and closeted "gay mafia."

    Trandahl, Fordham and Foley all contributed to this impression by living compartmentalized, closeted lives, expecting the media — including the gay media — not to report on their sexual orientation, even though they lived their lives quite openly, attending gay parties and other social events. Both Foley and Fordham were regularly seen in public with longtime partners.

    When questions were raised about Foley's sexual orientation during his Senate campaign — in May 2003, the same year as the graphic e-mails that have come to light and the same year that Fordham says Trandahl approached him about Foley's conduct — Fordham aggressively lobbied me and other journalists from the Washington Blade against reporting Foley's sexual orientation or even asking him the question. He apparently played the same role last week when the graphic online chats came to light, trying to horsetrade with ABC News an exclusive on Foley's resignation if they withheld the content of the chats.

    When Foley held a press conference back in 2003 to try to put a lid on the gay questions, his line of argument will sound familiar to those who read Fordham's resignation statement today. Foley blamed the gay questions on a "revolting and unforgivable" effort by Democrats to smear him. At the time, of course, Foley was locked in a heated Republican primary and there was no particular advantage for Democrats to knock the only GOP moderate out of the race.

    In similar fashion today, Fordham insisted his resignation was forced by Democrats who wanted to use him to damage Reynolds, his current boss. Every indication, however, is that fellow Republicans, especially in Speaker Hastert's camp, are the ones who have the most to gain for sticking Reynolds and Fordham with the blame for not stopping Foley earlier.

    The entire timeline remains convoluted and, even more than in most Washington scandals, everyone seems to have the knives out for everyone else. But all indications are that Trandahl and Fordham have serious questions to answer about how responsibly they handled the concerns raisd about Foley's conduct, and whether they let their own ambition and/or partisan loyalty and/or a "thin gay line" cloud their judgment.

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