Immediately after the Mark Foley scandal broke, some anti-Republican gay-rights activists composed a memo containing the names of closeted gay Republican Congressional staffers and sent it to leading Christian-right advocacy groups. The founder and chairman of one of those groups, the Rev. Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, told me he has received that memo, which he referred to simply as “The List.” Based on The List’s contents, Wildmon is convinced that a secretive gay “clique” boring within the Republican-controlled Congress is responsible for covering up Foley’s sexual predation toward teenage male House pages. Moreover, Wildmon calls on the Republican Party leadership to promptly purge the “subversive” gay staffers.
“They oughtta fire every one of ’em,” Wildmon told me in his trademark Mississippi drawl. “I don’t care if they’re heterosexual or homosexual or whatever they are. If you’ve got that going on, that subverts the will of the people; that subverts the voters. That is subversive activity. There should be no organization among staffers in Washington of that nature, and if they find out that they’re there and they’re a member, they oughtta be dismissed el pronto.”
Wildmon claimed that an investigation by Congressional Republican leaders into the gay menace lurking in their midst will clear House Speaker Dennis Hastert of allegations that he repeatedly ignored warnings about Foley’s behavior. “I think the identification of the members of the homosexual clique is going to come out,” Wildmon declared. “I think it’s going to come out whether or not Hastert knew what he says, and at this point I’m inclined to believe he’s telling the truth. I’m beginning to think that the homosexuals shielded their former Congressman Foley and that Denny Hastert did not know the depth of what’s going on up there.”
Wildmon’s defense of Hastert dovetails loosely with Hastert’s own explanation for his actions, or lack thereof. Hastert did nothing after being warned last spring by House majority leader John Boehner and Representative Tom Reynolds about Foley’s explicit exchanges with House pages. Yet during an October 10 press conference, Hastert deflected blame onto his own staffers, who he said may have engaged in a “cover-up.” (In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Hastert also blamed his woes on “ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by [liberal billionaire philanthropist] George Soros.”)
While Hastert has never suggested his staffers were part of any gay Republican “clique,” openly gay Hill staffers who had contact with Hastert’s staff and his Congressional allies have become subjects of a House Ethics Committee and FBI investigation into Foleygate. One of the gay staffers, Kirk Fordham, former chief of staff to Foley, was serving as Reynolds’s chief of staff when the news broke of Foley’s activities. Another, Jeff Trandahl, served as House Clerk from 1999 to 2005 and oversaw the page program.
Hastert’s chief of staff, Scott Palmer, has confirmed he was informed by Fordham of Foley’s lurid IMs in 2005. Fordham, however, alleges that Palmer knew of Foley’s behavior much earlier than 2005. Trandahl, for his part, was presented with Foley’s IMs in 2003 and, together with Illinois Republican Representative John Shimkus, told Foley to break contact with the teen.
Even though Fordham and Trandahl are key figures in the Foley scandal, the disclosure of their actions does not absolve House Republican leaders of their own roles in keeping Foley’s licentious and possibly illegal behavior from the public. Yet Fordham and Trandahl are tempting targets for the gay-obsessed Christian right. In their desperate effort to stave off a Democratic takeover of Congress and preserve their political agenda, Wildmon and his allies have volunteered as Hastert’s surrogates, casting him as the victim of a gay Republican cabal.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins first laid out the strategy on October 9, writing in FRC’s newsletter : “Has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by homosexual members and or staffers? When we look over events of this Congress, we have to wonder.” Perkins continued: “Does the [Republican] party want to represent values voters or Mark Foley and friends?” Though a portrait of Trandahl appeared beside Perkins’s missive, Perkins stopped just short of calling for a purge of gay GOP staffers.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, a co-founder of the FRC and a close ally of Wildmon, has taken a different tack. During the October 6 broadcast of his radio show, syndicated on more than 3,000 stations worldwide, Dobson dismissed Foley’s explicit e-mail exchanges with a former House page as “sort of a joke by the boy and some of the other pages.” Dobson then suggested that the liberal media concocted the entire scandal in order to depress turnout by so-called “values voters.”
Five days later, Dobson returned to the airwaves to give the liberal media another tongue-lashing. After accusing Media Matters for America and the Huffington Post of “spinning” his earlier comments downplaying the Foley scandal–“These folks can always be counted on to give the most extreme liberal interpretation of everything,” Dobson exclaimed–he recounted an upsetting inquiry from a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times.
“She [the reporter] said, ‘I heard late yesterday that Dr. Dobson had asked House leadership to fire all gay staffers,'” Dobson recalled in a voice brimming with indignation. “That’s crazy too. That, first of all, would be flat-out illegal. You can’t fire people just because somebody says so, and they’re certainly not going to do it because James Dobson says so. That’s crazy! They’re trying to make us look like extremists and people who do ridiculous things, and there’s absolutely no basis in this.”
With Wildmon brandishing The List and demanding a gay purge, which in Dobson’s words would be a “crazy,” “flat-out illegal,” “ridiculous thing,” the chaos and panic among the House leadership has spread to the Christian right. As Election Day draws nearer, the movement’s most influential leaders are markedly off-message, contradicting one another, and on the defensive. And their rhetorical fusillades have made gay Republican House staffers, some about to testify before the Ethics Committee and the FBI, fear for their careers.
Meanwhile, the so-called “values voters,” cultivated to propel the Republicans into control of the White House and Congress, appear to have lost the faith. An October 5 poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of white evangelicals plan to vote for Republican Congressional candidates in the midterms–a twenty-one-point drop in support from 2004. With such a large portion of the GOP’s core constituency likely to stay home on November 6, the results could be devastating.
Yet Wildmon remains confident that the Christian right can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. “This [scandal] might backfire in that if the ‘values voters’ see the methodology being used here, that could irritate them more than ever and motivate them to vote,” Wildmon assured me. “George Soros and his wrecking crew might have made a tactical mistake.”