WASHINGTON—The sad lesson of the House page scandal is that EVERYTHING in Washington is now seen through the lens of partisan politics—even the safety of children.
At every step in this still-emerging story, partisans of every stripe worked to protect their political party or hurt the other one, but there's no evidence that anyone ever acted sufficiently—or dared risk his or her party's image—to protect teenage boys from the inappropriate advances of former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.
That's evident in how the scandal started—when unidentified partisans tried to get Florida newspapers to write stories about Foley's inappropriate e-mails to a 16-year-old boy who'd served as a House page.
They probably were trying either to hurt the Republican incumbent's prospect for re-election or to force him out of the gay closet, another political motive.
And politics is clear in the way Republican leaders in Congress reacted—treating it as a political problem rather than a moral or law enforcement problem.
Consider the reaction when word of the first troubling Foley e-mail was reported to the Republican chairman of the bipartisan House Page Board.
"As chairman of the bipartisan House Page Board," Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said in his first statement on the matter last Friday, "I took immediate action to investigate."
Yet, despite his own emphasis that he chaired a bipartisan board, Shimkus kept the report secret from the panel's Democrat, Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich.
Instead, he went with the House clerk to see Foley, asked him about the e-mails, was told they were innocent and told Foley to stop.
"In my 21 years as a member of the House Page Board, every decision has been made on not just a bipartisan basis, but on a nonpartisan basis," Kildee said. "I was outraged to learn that the House Republican leadership kept to itself the knowledge of Mr. Foley's despicable behavior toward the House pages."
Why wouldn't Shimkus want bipartisan support? Perhaps he didn't want the Democrats to know about a potential problem in the Republican ranks. But if he'd treated the report as a bipartisan matter, as intended when the board was set up in 1982, there might have been a different outcome.
The full board might well have investigated more deeply. They might have talked to other pages and learned that Foley was a known problem. They could have turned the matter over to the bipartisan House Ethics Committee for resolution, or to law enforcers. Democrats then would have no grounds to blame Republican leaders for shielding Foley's behavior.
Instead, even once the Foley scandal became public, Shimkus treated it as a Republican problem. He huddled for hours with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., then announced that he'd met with pages and that he and Hastert had created a toll-free number for the pages to call to report problems.
Shimkus also said he'd work "in the days ahead" with other members of the Page Board. But bipartisanship still could wait; he hadn't even notified Kildee of the toll-free phone line.
Let's not let Democrats entirely off the partisanship hook.
They've been demanding, rightly, to know precisely what Republican leaders knew about Foley's behavior. Yet they apparently have absolutely no interest in knowing who first got hold of the e-mails and spread them around Florida—without warning the teens in the page program.
Democrats also have been using guilt by association to hurt Republicans in close election fights.
"Foley Sex Scandal Hits Mike DeWine," blared one headline from the party's political operation for Senate campaigns.
How was Ohio Republican Sen. DeWine hit by the sex scandal? Because he declined to say that Hastert and other Republican leaders should resign. Instead he said: " You have to look and see what they knew, what they did about it. I would want to know what they did about it."
That's hardly DeWine getting caught up in a sex scandal. But it's definitely partisan politics. And in Washington_ built on a swamp—that's what drives everything, even this sad story, which has plenty of politicians and no heroes.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)