Foley AIMs to Please

A sexless sex scandal in Washington


Mark Foley may be Washington's compensation for suffering through Jack Abramoff. For months, a city redeemed only by its scandals had to feed at the thin scraps of junkets, casinos, and K Street. Into this barren landscape burst Rep. Mark Foley, a cornucopia of awkward sexuality, ready hypocrisy, and adolescent vocabulary. If audiences crave sound-bites, Foley proved he could do one better: a story pre-packaged in instant messages.

But as it turns out, the Mark Foley pedophilia sex scandal lacks two things: pedophilia and sex. The victim of Foley's electronic overfriendliness was not a pre-adolescent, but a 16-year-old; above the age of consent in D.C., and an age at which the average American moves from explicit IM exchanges to the real deal. A 16-year-old is neither a defenseless child nor an adult, but Americans don't have a way to talk about attraction to sexually mature minors—an attraction that anchors the career of your average pop star but is best kept far, far away from an already perverse Washington. That leaves two options: Foley as pathological child abuser at one extreme, as a Clintonian philanderer on the other.

A week after he resigned, the six-term Florida Representative retreated into rehab for an alcoholism problem so secret he may not have known about it—a disease that, tragically, cuts him off from public comment as emails and IM transcripts saturate the ether. He left House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), and others to deal with questions about their extended tolerance for overly friendly Rep/page relations, and Washington watchers to wait for body counts.

What makes the Foley affair so explosive is not the age disparity but the power disparity, and, even more so, the written record—Representative Foley as Maf54. The raw quality of time-stamped IM-speak; the "Lol," as Maf54's language becomes increasingly bizarre, and not least of all the "brb… my mom is yelling" as the page known as Xxxxxxxxx negotiates between his "computer dumb" mother and an IM-savvy Congressman. The exchanges labeled "explicit" really aren't, but the tepid searching-ness of "What kind of things do you like to do?" is creepier than any prolix description of what, say, the Congressman would like to do.

If charges are leveled, they'll likely be based on broad legislation inked by the man himself. It's a safe bet that any law with a kid's name in it will overreach, and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act is no exception. The law, a hodgepodge of a response to MySpace panic, strikes at everything from hawking "date rape drugs" over the tubes to the use of "misleading domain names." It penalizes the solicitation of all minors—everyone under 18—despite the fact that the age of consent is two years lower in most states. Merely channeling an invitation through the magic of fiberoptic cables is a federal crime.

That the virtual defines the criminal is a stupid legal inconsistency, but it is part of a landscape in which legal and moral are regularly conflated. The term sex offender is so broad as to have lost all useful meaning, ranging from adults who urinate in public to those who prey on preschoolers. The barriers to slapping someone's address on a registry are so low that any actual tragedy gets lost in a sea of banality. Yet the term itself, heavy with registry and residency requirements, adopts all the weight of its most vile associations; not the Maf54s, but the John Wayne Gacys.

For his part, Foley has been a one-man war on nuance: A vocal fan of broad databases, the first to yell sicko and cry pervert. In his own words, Foley is "never too tired" to jerk off. Nor was he too tired to use his position as chairman of the former chairman of the House Caucus on Missing Children to stretch the definitions of sex crime beyond all meaning—everything from running a nudist camps to child modeling was deemed perverse, hardly distinguishable from straight-up abuse. At a news conference in 2002, he explained that it was a mistake to distinguish between the internet and physical contact, saying " It doesn't make a difference if the child engaged in sex is real or virtual. In other words, an old simple saying: If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it is a duck."

No one seems to be making that mistake; thanks to a culture Foley helped create, he has been portrayed as an alcoholic pedophile/adulterer/cybermonster hybrid as guilty as any predator beyond cyberspace. If the laws he helped to write are hopelessly clumsy, the circumstances of his political end couldn't be more perfect.