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The Leadership Follies

When all is said and done, the most shocking aspect of the Mark Foley congressional sex scandal now unfolding in Washington is that it’s not terribly surprising. It’s just another misadventure by politicians from the ruling party whose sordid deeds are poles apart from their self-righteous, moralizing blather. It’s another example of America’s political leaders blithely deciding to ignore the facts and to march forward into disaster with willful obliviousness, seemingly convinced that nothing will ever catch up with them. It’s more bad behavior by rightwing ideologues and spinmeisters watching their allies’ dross pile up and trying to pin the blame for the rising stink on the Democrats who noticed it. Or on the Hollywood and Manhattan liberals who supposedly destroyed America’s morals and thus created the atmosphere in which their poor colleagues were led astray. Or on the press, for reporting the news to the public.

In other words, it’s business as usual in Bush-era Washington.

The current scandal may seem more dramatic than most. If so, that’s because the ugly facts seem so simple and indisputable, and because the disgraced ex-congressman’s behavior is so utterly at odds with the sanctimonious rhetoric of his Republican Party’s conservative base, and because his defenders and enablers are so fantastically brazen in their protestations of innocence. And because the scandal broke just five weeks before an election.

This is, after all, a plot straight out of a screwball novel: Capitol Hill’s chief defender of children’s safety, head of a task force on children and co-sponsor of tough new legislation on sexual predators, turns out to be an apparent predator himself. The governing Republican congressional leadership turns out to have known about the man’s predilections for months and to have decided to ignore the truth, or disbelieve it, for reasons that can only be imagined. Once the truth becomes public, the conservative spin machine — the rightwing columnists, the political operatives, the “fair and balanced” television networks — sets out to blame the Democrats, the permissive culture of the urban coasts or even, as Matt Drudge tried to do in a radio appearance this week, the supposed bestiality of the congressman’s 16-year-old victims and their MySpace depravity. Everything but admit the truth and look within for honest answers.

But it’s just business as usual in Bush-era Washington. This is, after all, the same crew that came to power promising fiscal responsibility and then delivered irresponsibility on a scale unprecedented in American history: record government debt, trade deficits that have passed the point of calamitous, an economy that’s hundreds of billions of dollars in hock to Communist China. This is the crew that continues to cut taxes, reducing government revenues and driving the economy ever closer to the brink, as though mathematics and reality were simply a matter of personal taste.

And, of course, this is the crew that led us into a global war against terrorism and then somehow managed to lose that war by ignoring the warnings of allies, of our own generals and intelligence agencies, and of common sense.

Indeed, this is the greater scandal. It is a disaster that has unfolded before our eyes week by week for the past five years, slowly becoming the new normal, until we could almost forget that it results from a systematic series of decisions by our elected leaders. They dismissed early intelligence warnings about the Al Qaeda threat. When the attacks came in September 2001, they squandered the worldwide sympathy that followed by pursuing a pattern of arrogant, unilateral behavior. They decided to target Iraq for reasons of their own, falsified intelligence to make it seem a global terrorist threat and then bungled the war they had launched, landing us in a quagmire from which there is no obvious escape. They turned Iraq into a training ground and recruitment center for global jihad, in the process eliminating what had been the primary threat to the ambitions of Islamic Iran. They inherited a world that was, as they often noted, a dangerous place, and they made it infinitely more dangerous.

All this has been laid out in a remarkable series of documents released to public view in the past few weeks: a damaging National Intelligence Estimate, prepared last spring and leaked to the press last month; a similarly harsh British intelligence report that surfaced just days later; a new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, “State of Denial,” that lays out the unfolding tragedy in horribly plain language. Put together, the documents constitute a scathing indictment of the Republican wrecking crew that has ruled Washington for most of the past six years. Coming out just weeks before a crucial midterm election, with control of Congress in the balance, the leaks and disclosures might seem like a Democratic dream scenario, drawn straight from the playbook of Karl Rove himself.

You might have noticed all this, if you managed to get past the news of Mark Foley. Then again, you might have missed it. The Foley scandal, after all, is hot news. It’s about people, and personal morality, and sex. It has dominated public discourse for the past week, and swept everything else to the inside pages. If the Republicans fail to address their moral failures head-on, if they are unable to clean house, they just might lose control of Congress. On the other hand, if they conduct a clean sweep and replace their current leadership, polls suggest that they just might hold on to their majorities.

And that is the greatest scandal of all.

This is the season of forgiveness. The traditions of our Jewish community teach that repentance, honesty and good works can wipe clean the slate of past sins. We must approach the miscreant with compassion, not vengeance. We cannot know what inner demons drove Mark Foley to breach his public trust and shame himself. We can only guess at the calculations that led the House Republican leadership to sweep Foley’s misdeeds under the rug. As the Talmud teaches, we must not judge our fellows until we have stood in their shoes.

But this is also the season of Creation, the “birthday of the world,” as the Jewish New Year service teaches. We are responsible for the world we have inherited. Today, that world desperately needs a superpower America led and governed by responsible, rational adults. And, as the Talmud also teaches, in a place where there are no adults, each of us is required to rise to the occasion and be that adult.

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