In the wake of the Mark Foley page scandal, Wendy Wright certainly was surprised to hear that she was calling for House Speaker Denny Hastert to resign-especially since she said no such thing.
After Florida Congressman Mark Foley's resignation for sending inappropriate messages to male congressional pages, Democrats began calling for Hastert's resignation, saying he knew about Foley but did nothing to stop it. That's when Wright, president of Concerned Women for America (CWA), began receiving phone calls from other conservative Christian organizations asking if she really said Hastert needed to go. "We never even came close to that," Wright said.
Instead, reporters were apparently twisting Wright's words to fish for dissension among Christian conservatives. The journalistic gambit is similar to a police confession trick-convince other groups that CWA had been calling for Hastert's head and a reporter might induce them to really throw the House speaker under the bus.
"The media has been prodding people along," said Wright of the Foley scandal. "The whole point of this controversy has not been about Foley's behavior. The whole focus has been on the Republican leadership with the intent on suppressing [conservative Christian] voters."
Only a few weeks ago Republicans had cause to be optimistic for the first time in a while. After months of sagging poll numbers for President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, plummeting gas prices and a renewed focus on the War on Terrorism (a GOP bread-and-butter issue) had given conservatives reasons to feel good about the quickly approaching November mid-term elections.
But Republicans' failure to thoroughly check out suspicions raised by staffers, pages, and even congressmen about Foley has given an opening for Democrats to exploit the scandal at a time Republicans could hardly afford bad news. Now the media claims the scandal threatens to uncouple the relationship between Christian values voters and conservative political leaders-something Democratic vote-hunters wanted all along.
Seeing the potential to dissuade the so-called values voters who pushed Republicans to victory in 2004, some Democrats went to great lengths to pour gasoline on the smoldering coals of the Foley scandal. As far as political dirty tricks go, what's become known as "The List" may be one of the most vicious.
Around 8 p.m. on Oct. 4, a Democratic Party henchman clicked "send" on an e-mail that sent a list to Focus on the Family claiming to out as homosexuals 19 high-level Republican staffers on Capitol Hill. The List included the names of nine chiefs of staff for Republican congressmen. According to many homosexual groups, efforts by some gay-rights activists to "out" closeted gays represents salacious and vicious gossip with the intent to destroy the careers of political staffers.
Media stories indicate conservative Christians initially passed around The List, but Focus received the list from a Yahoo! e-mail account registered to the Health & Policy Research Foundation, a small California AIDS awareness charity run by former Democratic National Committee operative Rick Reidy.
Encoded in the properties of the document lay proof that Reidy, a gay-rights activist, edited the document prior to sending it on Oct. 4. Since then, Washington gay-rights activists like Mike Rogers have jumped on the bandwagon and have sought to out more closeted gay Republican staffers. Reidy did not respond to multiple e-mail and telephone requests for an interview.
To Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family, the motivation behind The List is clear. "Obviously, homosexuals in D.C. are willing to throw their brethren overboard if it will stir turmoil in social conservative ranks," Minnery said. "That's vicious."
But here's the interesting thing about The List: David Corn, a reporter for The Nation, published a blog article about The List close to 10 hours before the timestamp on the e-mail received by Focus on the Family. Apparently in the wake of the Foley scandal, some liberal news organizations went from reporting to wishful thinking. When Corn reported on a civil war between religious conservatives and mainline GOPers, the Christian conservative organizations named by Corn were actually just beginning to comb through their e-mail archives to see if they even received the document.
Wright says the reporting on The List is just another example of a press eager to jump to conclusions about conservative Christians ready to sit out the mid-term elections. "[Papers] are claiming that there's evidence that evangelicals will stay home, but when you try and search out what evidence they're pointing to, you can't find it," Wright said. "I think it was a dead giveaway with how quickly they started saying it after the Foley scandal was announced. Within a week, there were major articles saying that people were going to stay home. There's no way you can gauge that yet."
Minnery said Focus, to the contrary, decided to run two radio broadcasts in the last week contradicting the conventional media wisdom. "We have pointed out that this unmerited feeding frenzy by the media has to be fueled by the media's desire to see Democrats win both houses of Congress," he said.
How have Christian organizations reacted to The List and the Foley scandal? Despite the panicked gay witch hunt some bloggers and news outlets predicted, Christian conservative organizations generally responded with a yawn:
Focus on the Family: Focus received The List from Reidy on Oct. 4, but vice president of public policy Tom Minnery told WORLD he hadn't seen it and "wouldn't do anything with it if I had it." Another Focus official said he had deleted the e-mail without paying much attention to it. "Some reporters last week interpreted the conservative shock and outrage at the Foley incident to mean that social conservatives are abandoning the Republican Party," Minnery added. "That won't happen either."
Family Research Council: FRC's Tom McClusky, the group's vice president for government affairs, says the names on The List come as no surprise to him. "If they're thinking such a list will make us question how dedicated the Republican Party is to social issues, they're a couple years too late," McClusky said. "We don't need a list to know that there are people in Congress working to hold up the social agenda."
American Family Association: AFA president Don Wildmon acknowledges that conservative leaders have much work to do prior to November. Wildmon said he hadn't seen The List and that he's not looking for it either: "This whole thing is politics at its ugliest. . . . We all know that there are sinners in both parties, hypocrites in both parties."
With just weeks to go before the election, Wildmon charged GOP leaders to give values voters something positive to get behind. "I think we could rally the troops. We've got e-mail lists. We've got radio stations. We've got something we didn't have 15 years ago-communication," said Wildmon, whose group boasts 3.3 million supporters. "It's kind of like we've got a gun, and we're ready to fire it. But we don't have any ammunition. The Republican leadership controls the ammunition. If they want us to fire the gun, they better give us some bullets."