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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Even though I toiled for decades as a political analyst, I confess, dear reader, that often I cannot fathom what in blue blazes politicians are thinking.

Let us explore, as a case in point, the desperate campaign adventures of the powerful Clarence Republican, Tom Reynolds, a member of the House of Representatives so promising to GOP leadership after his appointment as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (in which role he supervises House fund-raising for re-election and finding strong candidates) that he was frequently mentioned as potentially the next speaker of the House.

Now, odds are incredibly strong he won't survive Election Day, precisely one month away.

In case you've been on an ocean voyage -- or simply exhibited better taste than most of us in ignoring this tawdry tale -- we have to start three years ago, when the House leadership became aware Rep. Mark A. Foley, himself a promising Republican congressman from Florida who made his money selling West Palm Beach real estate, was sending inappropriate e-mails and instant messages to House pages in their teens. In Congress, pages, both male and female, most 16 or 17, are errand-runners. Most of them are juniors in high school, enjoying appointments in Congress in a venerable, storied and much-praised program that will shape the rest of their lives.

They take important and unimportant messages back and forth between members. Most congressmen pay little attention to pages, or gruffly treat them like serfs. Not Foley.

He chatted with them personally, encouraged their efforts, asked about hopes and dreams, sent them countless instant messages on the computers and e-mailed scores of them -- ceaselessly.

Sometimes Foley would break into the House electronic system to do so, briefly screwing up important floor votes, such as one on funding the war in Iraq. Talk about quiet desperation.

By "inappropriate," I mean suggestive messages like this one with a 16-year-old page he calls "my favorite young stud."

Foley: what ya wearing?

Teen: tshirt and shorts

Foley: Love to strip them off you.

Foley was nothing if not relentless. He could turn the most innocent of electronic exchanges into a misspelled yet detailed discussion of male masturbation or his own sexual excitement. Below are electronic exchanges with the same page quoted above.

Page: my last gf and I broke up a few weeks ago

Foley: good so your getting horny

When the page is finally lured into describing his teenage self-gratification methods, Foley tells him, "I have a totally stiff wood now" and a few seconds later Foley instructs him to "get a ruler and measure it for me," then makes his own admission: "I am hard as a rock."

Foley's stock lines to pages, usually offered early in the electronic conversation, were to ask them if they are "well hung" or to ask, "Do I make you a little horny?"

And these are the tamer exchanges.

For all you prudes who are right now planning to send me e-mails and letters about the salacious material above and to inform me how I'm a crude lout and sensation-seeking yellow journalist with no taste or standards, don't waste your time. This is no street feeb or ineffective lamo we're talking about here, leering affably at children but failing to act upon urges.

This is, or was, an influential U.S. congressman, for gosh sakes, and it's precisely because of this seeming inability of our current media to call a spade a spade, precisely because of this phony "political correctness" so rampant in our land, that these creeps are allowed to flourish, get re-elected to high office every other fall and assume critically important positions.

Foley, for instance, was ironically the chairman and co-founder of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus -- an important Capitol Hill group officially tasked with forging and pushing legislation that would effectively protect our youth from sexual predators. Foley was both predator and hypocrite. In 2002, he publicly and angrily said of those who would sexually prey on teenagers, "They're sick people. They need mental health counseling. They certainly don't need to be interacting with children."

Our sharpest national comedian and social critic, Jon Stewart, observed that Foley "spent most of his career protecting children from Internet stalkers -- turns out he was doing it so he could have them all to himself."

Back to Tom Reynolds. When ABC News broke the stalker-in-Congress story 12 days ago, Foley instantly resigned his seat, and the media attention turned to the House leadership. What did they know, and when did they know it?

House Speaker Dennis Hastert predictably played the Blame Game card and said the Democrats were behind it to further their chances on Nov. 7: "They're trying to put us on defense." Hastert also called a Three Monkeys audible (See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Speak Nothing) and said he only knew about this mess recently.

Reynolds had no hesitation pointing the finger at his boss, letting reporters know he had warned Hastert about a year ago of reports Foley was sending questionable messages to pages. Hastert maintained he didn't remember the conversation, but that it could have happened. Then Reynolds, probably trying to protect Hastert, said he first learned the Foley e-mails were "overly friendly" when a Louisiana congressman (Rodney Alexander) told him about them last spring.

Then Reynolds adopted the Complete Denial strategy: "I never saw a single e-mail. Not one."

Then, after finally reading the e-mails, he followed up with a Get to the Head of the Parade move: "I immediately forced Foley to resign."

While Hastert and Reynolds and the rest of the House GOP still can't get their stories straight on what they knew and when, subsequent FBI and House Ethics Committee investigations are uncovering evidence this scandal has been in the wind for at least three years -- and that House leadership either judiciously turned its collective head, or played hush-hush with it.

It couldn't have bothered Reynolds too much early on. He asked Foley to run for re-election.

Now -- faced with a stunning 48-33 percent deficit in favor of his Democrat opponent Jack Davis, in a Buffalo News poll taken in his 26th Congressional District and published Sunday -- Reynolds has resorted to a Partial Confessional strategy, much in resemblance of another famous Republican's game plan during the Watergate scandal: Richard M. Nixon's "Limited Hangout Route."

Reynolds has dropped $200,000 on a local TV campaign ad (seemingly run every five minutes or so), which in part states, "Last week we all learned of other e-mails, worse than anything I had heard before. I immediately forced Foley to resign. Nobody's angrier and more disappointed that I didn't catch his (Foley's) lies. I trusted that others had investigated. Looking back, more should have been done, and for that I am sorry."

My, my, that sure convinces me that everyone is telling the truth -- NOT.

For one thing, my 22 years in Washington, much of it covering Capitol Hill, tells me when news leaked out to House leadership that a prominent Florida Republican member was ginning up sexual conversations with pages, it would have been treated with all the attention and concentration that rumor of a bomb in the chamber would draw. Steps would have been taken behind the scenes to: 1) stop Foley from repeating this self-destructive fishing for illegal sex; and 2) keep the news from breaking to the general public -- especially when a can't-miss, mortal lock, hammer-the-Dems-again election was looming.

Yet, the very man entrusted by the GOP to ensure repetition of its strong majority status -- Reynolds -- in a Buffalo News editorial board session last week could muster no more explanation for the blithe manner in which such an explosive political threat was treated than to claim his days are "full-packed" with work, 15 to 18 hours each.

In that meeting, he made other strange assertions. For instance, he was asked no fewer than six times whether it was "proper for a 50-year-old man to be writing overly friendly e-mails to a 16-year-old boy?"

Six times, Reynolds refused to answer yes or no. He said six times, "I wouldn't have written it."

Well, duh ... who would have, and still be calloused enough to seek re-election? For all you budding politicians out there and fledgling aspirants to higher office, here's a campaign tip:

When a reporter or editor asks you if you would have solicited sex with a 16-year-old or engaged in suggestive Internet conversations like Foley did -- no matter what the form of solicitation -- stand up, holler, "NO, I WOULD NOT!!" and threaten to rip out the questioner's esophagus if your standards of behavior are ever insulted again in such a manner.

Reynolds also got all huffy in the News editorial interview when asked why his National Republican Congressional Committee had kept an extraordinary $100,000 contribution from Foley to help other GOPers get elected.

The NRCC is designed "to help elect other Republicans," Reynolds noted, "and I promise you, that's exactly what that money's going to do."

Reynolds said it was "absurd" for Democrats to call the $100,000 hush money given by Foley so he could be allowed to run again.

A cardinal rule of successful political campaigning is that once you've made a mistake, admit to it openly, but don't keep repeating it. Now, we're seeing Reynolds advance a ludicrous explanation on the tube about 20 times a day. What are his advisers thinking? James Carville must be laughing himself silly.

And now the Republican nightmare has come true. The scandal is slopping over on all the other GOP congressional candidates across America. When you have conservative columnist George Will and the conservative Washington Times (a little to the right of Ghengis Khan) calling for your collective heads, you are in trouble. The always-perceptive Will observed over the weekend that "the problem with claiming to have cornered the market on virtue is that people will get snippy when they spot vice in your ranks."

And Hastert's laughable and continued insistence that this is all some vast left-wing Democratic plot is losing his underlings votes by the minute. It seems more like a celestial plot, or cosmic balancing act. Our memories are not short enough to have dimmed recollection of the GOP's snarling, pit-bull, ripping and tearing attacks on President Bill Clinton when he successfully wooed the White House pizza girl.

Ah, yes, you're going to tell me at least there's no evidence Foley actually had sex with the targets of his smarmy affections. You are wrong. As I write this, I am reading a Los Angeles Times story in which a former House page says he had sex with Foley in the fall of 2000 after receiving explicit e-mails from him. The former page was 21 at the time and is now out in the working world. He told the Times the Florida congressman explained how he "assessed the sexual orientation and physical attributes" of underaged pages, waiting until they were of age to make his direct advances. How splendid of him. The FBI and House Ethics Committee will be happy to know that.

As for Foley, he has checked himself into an alcohol abuse clinic. He is, I believe, unlikely to be prosecuted unless the FBI actually finds he had sex with 16-year-olds, but you never know.

As for Reynolds, get a good look at him in his ubiquitous TV ads. You're unlikely to see him publicly after November.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 10 2006