The E-Mail Slime Trail
October 04, 2006
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.
Try, for a moment , to remember what your life was like before e-mail. When you wanted to talk to your co-workers, you actually got up out of your chair and walked down the hall. If you needed to communicate something to someone in a different office, you had to pick up the phone. E-mail and instant messaging make things speedy, easy and possible to do without lots of forethought and planning.
Like carrying out a scheme to defraud Indian tribes of millions of dollars. Or seducing teenage boys.
But as some people are finding out, electronic communication does something else that phone and in-person contact doesn’t: it leaves evidence behind. And because we use it so often and so casually, it ends up revealing our true selves. If you’re corrupt, your e-mails prove it. If you’re a pedophile, the evidence will be there, too, the slime trail laid out in ones and zeros.
So many Republican bad deeds have come to light in the last couple of weeks that it's getting difficult to keep them all straight. You have Bob Woodward’s “revelations” that the administration was telling the public the precise opposite of what it knew to be true about Iraq (I know, we’re all shocked). You have Mark Foley, now the fourth Republican congressman leaving office in disgrace and potentially facing jail (to refresh your memory, the others are Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, and Bob Ney), and the Republican leadership that knew what he was up to and tried to keep it under wraps for months. You have the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development discovering that HUD contracts were awarded based on Republican loyalty. And you have the latest details on our old friend Jack Abramoff, released in a damning report by the House Government Reform Committee that shows that when the White House said they barely knew Abramoff, they were not quite telling the truth.
It would be too trite to say that the connection between all these is just that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and with no meaningful check on their power, Republicans inevitably lied to the public, sold favors and covered it up when one of their own preyed on the teenagers who run errands through the halls of Congress. But that would almost be letting them off the hook. Each one of the individuals involved in all these scandals had choices to make. They could have done the right thing, but they didn’t. There was nothing inevitable about it.
They Knew Jack
The new House report makes clear that when Jack Abramoff wasn’t stealing money from the Indian tribes who were his clients, he was wielding influence in both Congress and the White House. His team of lobbyists made an extraordinary 485 contacts with members of the Bush administration between January 2001 and March 2004, 345 of which were in person (the rest were phone conversations or e-mail exchanges). The key point of contact was Susan Ralston, who went from working as Abramoff’s personal assistant to working as Karl Rove’s personal assistant. Her e-mails show the level of access the Abramoff team enjoyed. “Thanks for breakfast,” an e-mail from Ralston to one of Abramoff’s lobbyists reads. “I showed KR the binder ... He gave the binder to Mehlman to read cover to cover and to be prepared. Mehlman will be at the meeting.’” That, of course, refers to Ken Mehlman, then a White House political strategist and now chairman of the Republican Party. “Abramoff is someone who we don’t know a lot about,” Mehlman said a few months ago. “We know what we read in the paper.”
In their defense, the White House has argued that Abramoff didn’t get most of what he wanted from them. While this is true, he was not entirely unsuccessful. The Government Reform committee’s report showed that Abramoff’s team apparently succeeded in arranging the removal of a State Department official named Allen Stayman, who had advocated labor reforms in the Marianas Islands. “Mehlman said he would get him fired,” read an e-mail from one of Abramoff’s lobbyists. Later, Stayman was told by his superior “that politics had been brought into the decision, which Stayman took to mean White House involvement, and as a result Stayman’s appointment would not be renewed.” Soon after, according to the committee’s report, “Susan Ralston reported to Abramoff that the Office of Presidential Personnel and the State Department had ‘worked out a deal’ and that Stayman would ‘be out in four months.’”
Abramoff’s client, the government of the Marianas Islands (a U.S. protectorate), wanted to maintain their ability to operate textile factories with virtual slave labor conditions yet put “Made in the U.S.A.” on their products. In one of the ugliest vignettes of the Abramoff scandal, Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, who took a junket to the Marianas and had numerous contacts with Abramoff’s office, inserted in the Congressional Record an attack on a 15-year-old girl who had been vocal about her sexual slavery in the Marianas and told her story (Hall argued that she was a willing participant).
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
There’s more than just the party affiliation of the offenders that unites the Abramoff scandal and the Foley scandal. In both cases, the most the most pious, sanctimonious figures turn out to be the most corrupt. Tom DeLay, the man on whose power Jack Abramoff built his career, said that God was using him to bring a “biblical worldview” to the American government. DeLay’s “spiritual advisor” and former chief of staff Ed Buckham set up a lobbying organization (the U.S. Family Network) to funnel money to DeLay. (The group received $1,000,000 from Russian oil oligarchs where were apparently attempting to get DeLay’s help in securing IMF funds for Russia that would benefit them.) Abramoff himself is a famously observant orthodox Jew. DeLay and others were aggressive in helping Abramoff’s client, the Marianas Islands, maintain virtual slave labor conditions. And Mark Foley co-chaired the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, often speaking passionately about how we need to protect our children from online predators.
When they became aware of just who Mark Foley was, the avatars of “family values” in the Republican leadership had a choice. They could work to protect their party from political embarrassment, or they could work to protect the teenagers who were in their care. We know now what they chose. The “Foley Five”—Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner, National Republican Congressional Committee chair Thomas Reynolds, John Shimkus, who oversees the page program, and Rodney Alexander, who is the boy’s Congressman—all knew about Foley’s behavior, and all took steps to keep it quiet. Their defense that the e-mails from Foley to a House page were just “overly friendly” are patently absurd—when a 52-year-old man writes to a 16-year-old boy, asks for a picture of him, and tells him his friend is “in really great shape,” he’s trying to seduce him. We saw him go into the bank wearing a ski mask and carrying a gun, but we had no idea he might actually do something illegal. Foley’s lawyer now claims that despite his years of trying, the congressman never actually succeeded in getting a page—or any other underage boy—to actually engage in any sexual activity with him. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge you might be interested in.
The explosion of this story is the icing on the Democrats’ electoral cake. Coming after Abramoff, Katrina, the debacle of Iraq, and too many other things to mention, it makes it seem all but impossible that Republicans will hold both houses of Congress five weeks from now. And Democrats may well find themselves in control of the White House as well in just over two years. Among the thousands of people who will populate those branches, there will no doubt be at least some without ethics. But if they want to match the Republicans’ record of corruption, they’ll have their work cut out for them.
And something tells me they’ll be more careful about what they put in their e-mails.