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    December 11, 2006

    What of Foley's 'thin pink line'?

    Posted by: Chris

    Foleyreport_3 The newly released House ethics committee report on Mark Foley offers some important clues about whether the once-closeted Florida congressman found some degree of cover from other closeted Republicans who tried to keep his "page problem" in-house, as it were.  From the earliest days of this blog, I have suggested that questions be asked about whether Foley implicitly relied on something like a "thin pink line" of closeted gay Republicans on the Hill to keep the lid on his inappropriate interest in teenage pages.

    It's clear now from the testimony of two of those gay Republicans — Jeff Trandahl, the former chief clerk of the House, who was responsible for the page program; and Kirk Fordham, Foley's long-time chief of staff — that they both were aware from the time Foley first came to Congress in 1995 that he was "overly friendly" with male pages, interns and even custodial staff.  It's also clear that both of them took these warning signs seriously, and repeatedly implored Foley to maintain a more professional distance.  Some of these warnings may have stuck in the short term, but of course we know now that they did not succeed in keeping the Florida Republican in check.

    Trandahljeff_1Both Trandahl and Fordham clearly understood and repeatedly communicated directly to Foley the dangerous waters he was treading as a closeted gay congressman developing personal relationships with male teenagers.  Here's how Trandahl described his thinking:

    Here you had — which I think is appropriate to say — a closeted gay guy who was putting himself in a situation of being one on one with young people.  And if an accusation is made, he would be immediately presumed, in a political light, guilty unless he could prove himself innocent.  So my counseling to him was, one, you don't need to be in the middle of this community of children; and two, you are creating an enormous political risk for yourself.

    Trandahl told the committee that, in addition to these direct warnings to Foley, he also talked repeatedly with Fordham to enlist his help and found Fordham "always agreeable."

    Fordhamkirk_3 Fordham, in turn, would meet with Foley to reinforce the message, and the report includes Fordham's description of one of these meetings:

    I went in to the boss and again — very uncomfortable conversation to have — and again relayed basically what Mr. Trandahl had shared with me.  I reminded him that because, you know, he is gay — most of his colleagues had figured that out, even though he hadn't announced that he was, you know, people were watching what he did.  [They're] paying attention to his behavior, and he needed to be more conscious of how he interacted with younger staffers, interns, pages.

    The report details dozens of attempts like this, by both Trandahl and Fordham.  In addition, Trandahl raised concerns about Foley on several occasions with Ted Van Der Meid, effectively Trandahl's "boss" in the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert.  To Van Der Meid's discredit, he  essentially did nothing with Trandahl's concerns.

    When Trandahl and Fordham could see that Foley was reverting to old habits, the duo decided to up the ante, raising the issue directly in late 2002 or early 2003 with Scott Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff.  Fordham testified that he met with Palmer to seek assistance with the "chronic problem with [his] boss' attention to pages and young staffers."  Fordham told the committee that Palmer said he would meet with Foley and later confirmed Foley "understood the message" and Speaker Hastert had been "brought in the loop."

    Palmer famously denied either meeting ever took place, much less saying anything to Hastert.  The committee decided that "the weight of the evidence" supports Fordham's account, an especially damning indictment of both Palmer and Hastert, since the Speaker has stuck to his denial of knowing anything at all about Foley's page problem until just before his resignation this September.

    So what of the "thin pink line" of closeted Hill Republicans?  The committee made no effort to follow this line of inquiry.  There's no indication either Van Der Meid or Palmer in Hastert's office was asked if he is gay, despite persistent rumors that both are.  The report does not even mention that Trandahl and Fordham are gay.  No doubt pursuing these questions struck the committee and its staff as McCarthy-like and irrelevant, even though the committee ultimately concluded that partisan motives and protecting Foley's closet were the key reasons why more wasn't done in response to all the warning signs.

    Markfoley_2Most importantly, the report underscores tenfold that the primary and overwhelming responsibility for Foley's misconduct lies with no one but Foley himself.  His gross predatory behavior — the scope of which is still unknown — was despite years and years of friendly warnings from Trandahl and Fordham that, as a closeted gay man, he needed to maintain a more professional distance with young male interns and pages.  Those warnings were repeated by Palmer and even by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the chair of the page board, who at Trandahl's request confronted Foley in November 2005 about an "overly friendly" email Foley sent to a former page.

    Foley nonetheless used the page program to meet and befriend these teenage males, and then moved in for the kill once they graduated and (in his sick mind) were fair game for his sexual advances.  That sort of predatory behavior reflected poorly not just on Foley, but (unfairly or not) on Trandahl and Fordham, whose names were dragged through the mud despite all their efforts.  And of course Foley's conduct reflected poorly on gay people generally, since he chose to finally come out only after his resignation, as part of a last-ditch effort to explain away his misconduct.  ("I'm not a pedophile," he was saying.  "I'm an alcoholic gay man still victimized by my teenage abuse by a Catholic priest.")

    There's also absolutely no evidence that either Trandahl or Fordham knew anything about the sexually explicit instant messages that ultimately led to Foley's resignation, although the committee's indefensible refusal to investigate those communications robbed all those involved from complete vindication on that point.  Trandahl and Fordham should be credited with taking very seriously the "warning signs" about Foley, and with repeatedly taking steps — albeit within certain boundaries — to get Foley's attention.

    Without knowing more about Palmer and Van Der Meid, we don't know if one of those "boundaries" was limiting disclosure about Foley's "page problem" to other gay Republicans, though regardless Van Der Meid was the appropriate Hastert staffer for Trandahl to approach.  The committee was far more critical of Van Der Meid, who "showed an inexplicable lack of interest" in the Foley matter, than of Trandahl, though the latter was outside the committee's jurisdiction once he resigned as House clerk in November 2005.

    Some may fault Trandahl and Fordham for not ratcheting things up further.  One of those "boundaries" they didn't cross was partisan; all their warnings stayed within Republican circles.  Even when Trandahl brought in Congressman Shimkus in late 2005, neither Republican informed any of the Democrats on the page board.  The reason, sometimes expressed and sometimes not, was a concern that Democrats would have leapt on the issue for partisan advantage.  The report certainly validates that concern, recounting how the only two Democrats to learn about the "overly friendly" Foley email responded by bypassing all House channels and going directly to the press.

    I will say this, as well, about both Fordham and Trandahl.  I have known and respected Kirk Fordham for years, even if I have frequently disagreed with him on any number of issues surrounding Foley and the other Republicans for whom he has worked.  I do not know Trandahl, but close friends and respected colleagues of mine also speak very highly of him and his commitment to the integrity of his office while chief clerk of the House.

    With the benefit of hindsight, I would say both Fordham and Trandahl were co-opted, voluntarily or not, by Foley's closet.  It's a danger faced by anyone who deals with gay issues, including those of us in the gay press.  It doesn't matter how out and proud you are personally.  Once you learn that someone like Foley is gay and closeted, any action you consider taking based on information connected to his sexual orientation carries with it the freight of "outing" him as well.  If you're semi-closeted yourself — both Fordham and Trandahl were out within the D.C. gay community and to some House colleagues, but not generally or publicly — then outing someone else can carry a great personal risk as well.

    That is why, faced only with warning signs and no direct evidence of sexual misconduct by Foley, both Trandahl and Fordham come off as concerned more that "where there's smoke someone might see it," rather than "where there's smoke there's fire."  Both Trandahl and Fordham acknowledged that their primary concern was for Foley, not the pages, and to the extent Trandahl expressed concern about the pages, it was that Foley was a "nuisance," not a threat.

    Perhaps because both Fordham and Trandahl knew, liked and wanted to protect Foley, they did not imagine him to be the predator he turned out to be.  And they did not press him with the 64-thousand-dollar question:  Was there actual fire behind the smoke?  Was this middle-aged congressman having sexually explicit contact, by virtual or non-virtual means, with young males he met through the page program?  Shimkus is the only one the report credits with actually raising that question with Foley, and he emphatically denied it, as probably he would have even to closer (gay) confidants like Trandahl and Fordham.  Only when confronted with the goods by ABC News did Foley finally admit his misdeeds.

    All in all, the portrait that emerges from the committee's incomplete investigation is one that largely vindicates Trandahl and Fordham, even as it implicates the "see-no-evil" soon-to-be-former Speaker and his staff.  Among the most depressing side effects of the Foley scandal is that the light it has shown on the role closeted gay Republicans play on Capitol Hill is likely to push the ones who remain there further into the closet, compounding the complicated and dangerous situation that Trandahl and Fordham faced. 

    Hopefully, the utter destruction of Foley's reputation, and the way he dragged Trandahl and Fordham (despite all their efforts) into the mud along with him, will serve as a warning in the future that sometimes smoke signals fire, and everyone aware of a problem needs to grab a hose, and not a shovel.



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    1. Alan on Dec 11, 2006 2:07:33 PM:

      Once more I am compelled to ask how did the committee complete its investigation without having subpoenaed and interviewed Mr. Foley himself.

      I would think that if his double rehab was based, as most are, on a 12 step program that he would have felt the need and welcomed the opportunity to make amends.

    1. Citizen Crain on Dec 11, 2006 2:41:29 PM:

      It's a good question, Alan, and I answered it (if belatedly) when you asked in comments to my first post on the ethics committee report. The fuller respnose is there but the short answer is that Foley's attorneys said he would take the Fifth and refuse to testify, so the committee chose to conclude its investigation without hearing from him.

    1. KJ on Dec 11, 2006 3:08:20 PM:

      Excellent report and objective analysis, Citizen Crain. Subsequently, you will likely need to look out for the haters since objectivity is an anathema to them.

    1. Anonymous on Dec 11, 2006 10:01:08 PM:

      You're a fool.

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