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In today's Washington, scandals unfold at light speed

William Neikirk
Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- "I'm not a crook," said Richard M. Nixon before the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him for his role in Watergate.

"It depends on what the meaning of the word `is' is," Bill Clinton told a federal grand jury in his famous linguistic dance about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"The buck stops where I'm at," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said as he declared that he was taking the responsibility -- but none of the blame -- for the congressional page scandal involving departed Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.

Washington's culture of scandal has its own priceless lexicon and peculiar pathologies. It often is driven by money and greed, ambition and power, and, of course, sex. It features cover-ups, the circling of wagons, the shifting of blame and counterattacks until, ultimately, the truth emerges.

As Hastert, much to his dismay, and other Republicans quickly learned, scandal swiftly takes charge of the public debate and dominates it until there is a resolution, usually someone's head rolling.

Issues take a back seat when a scandal is brewing. For a press corps bored with the substance of government, scandal is like cotton candy. Because this one boiled up only a month before the election, it is threatening an already endangered Republican majority.

Scandal unfolds and spreads rapidly these days with the Internet and 24-hour cable news -- a speed that can outrun the ability of those involved to obtain and marshal facts.

Stephen Hess, a political scholar at The Brookings Institution, said that when newspapers were predominant, reporters had half a day or more to work on a breaking story about scandal. With cable, he said, they have minutes. "With the Internet," he said, "they have seconds."

Damage control means it is best to get the truth out as quickly as possible -- a lesson that politicians have struggled to absorb since Watergate. But Charles Black, a Republican political consultant, said things often move so fast that it is hard to get all the facts out to halt the feeding frenzy.

"Getting everybody together to determine what the facts are is the biggest challenge," Black said. That is especially true in cases with a lot of people involved. "You can't delay responding very long, as you are getting pummeled," he said.

To those caught up in scandal, there is nowhere to escape from the media, political opponents or the public's dark suspicions. Scandal has been around as long as the republic, but lately it seems to be more frequent in a system where the players are desperate for campaign contributions.

The scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff has swept up a number of members of Congress. Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio resigned for making false statements and conspiracy to commit fraud. The powerful GOP majority leader, Tom DeLay, resigned after he was indicted in Texas over his role in an election controversy. As part of a bribery investigation, the FBI found $90,000 in cash stashed in the freezer of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., when it raided his New Orleans home.

In the case of the Foley scandal, the story quickly shifted from Foley to the speaker because Hastert was slow to respond, said Stan Collender, managing director of the Washington office of Qorvis Communications, a public-relations company. Without a strong identity, even for a man who is second to the vice president in the line of succession, Hastert let a crisis define him, a definite no-no in the world of public relations, Collender said.

Questions linger about whether Hastert should have acted more decisively. Many Americans, and even some officials in the Bush administration, believe he should step down because neither he nor his staff acted aggressively against Foley after learning he sent "over-friendly" e-mails to a page.

But with control of Congress at stake, Hastert turned to a familiar tack. He suggested that Democrats might have leaked the most damaging electronic transmissions just before next month's election -- a claim he later backed away from by saying he was only repeating what he had heard or read.

He sounded a little like Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998. Standing by her husband before the truth emerged about his relationship with Lewinsky, she went on TV and blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy" for attacking Clinton since he began campaigning for the presidency.

Clinton is one of the few in Washington who managed to ride out the storm of scandal, although his reputation suffered greatly. The attempted impeachment failed, but the scandal effectively ended his presidency.

Most Washington scandals, of course, fall into two categories -- money or sex. In the past, the city took wicked delight in sex scandals, especially when they involved top figures, such as the powerful Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas.

In 1974, Mills was stopped by police one night in Washington, and his companion, Fanne Foxe, a stripper from an establishment known as the Silver Slipper, jumped into the Tidal Basin.

The Wall Street Journal led off its story the next day with a bit of doggerel: "She was just a stripper from the Silver Slipper, but she had her Ways and Means."

But the page scandal is different. It revolves around a powerful congressman's inappropriate overtures to children sent to Washington to work and learn about the Democratic process.

There is nothing entertaining about this one.

___

(William Neikirk is a senior correspondent in the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau.)

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