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The Mark Foley scandal places in stark relief the moral hypocrisy that underscores the Bush administration’s attitude toward sexuality and power. Foley has rationalized his inappropriate (if not illegal) behavior with adolescent boys behind what some media pundits are calling a self-denier’s trifecta: being drunk, being sexually assaulted by a priest and being gay. Whatever the outcome of the Foley follies, it seems to have taken the proverbial wind out of the sails of the new puritans. Wedge issues that defined the 2004 election like gay marriage, abortion rights and stem-cell research seem to have lost their edge. Yet, as a House ethics committee and FBI investigations proceed over whether he committed any sex crimes, a deeper panic seems to be emerging–the fear that a Republican man-boy sex ring could be operating in Congress. Whatever the outcome, the momentary pause in the culture wars provides an important opportunity to assess a darker side of the Bush presidency, the perversion of power.
A peculiar sexual perversion marks George Bush’s presidency. The Bush administration began auspiciously when Attorney General John Ashcroft draped two semi-nude statues, “Spirit of Justice” (female) and “Majesty of Law” (male), in the Justice Department auditorium. It gained momentum with the obscenity scandal involving Janet Jackson’s now-infamous nipple, forcing a reluctant FCC to stand up for moral rectitude and slap a stiff fine on a contrite (if dumbfounded) CBS. It achieved its clearest absurdity in the scandal involving Jeff Gannon, the Republican White House blogger who, afterhours, turned out to be James Dale Guckert (aka “Bulldog”), operator of a gay website with U.S. Marine Corp. themes for the solicitation of male prostitutes.
However, no one will soon forget the disturbing photographs of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Lynndie England’s seductive leer to the camera–the moment when the perversion of sadism became the pathology of empire. (It was Rep. Chris Shays [R-CT] who warned America that Abu Ghraib “ain’t torture, it’s sex.”) But the most perverse moment surely was when (to use Arundhati Roy’s wonderful term) Bush-the-Lesser jumped from the cockpit of the Navy S-3B Viking and, posing against a banner that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished,” strode assertively across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Like the super-stud captain of a small town Texas high school football team, Bush symbolized unchallenged power.
At that moment, Bush had pulled off what appeared to be a slam-dunk military victory. He, along with the others who had taken part in the conspiracy, thought that they would get away with the greatest lie in American history: They manipulated the nation into an illegitimate and failed war. It was an exercise of absolutist power. And power, as Kissinger knew so well, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Bush’s strutting on the Lincoln was a demonstration of his full masculine, imperial potency for the entire world to see. It was an erotic moment few experience.
Each presidency is marked by a sexual darkside. This is especially true among recent presidents who have become, like the hottest rock and movie stars, eroticized celebrities. Jimmy Carter suffered from lust in his heart; Ronald Reagan, a divorcee, was plagued by the denial of AIDS and rumors that his son is gay; Bush-the-Elder’s administration was shadowed by rumors (instigated by the Moon-backed Washington Times) of gay and pedophile rings operating out of the White House; and Clinton’s tryst with Monica bespoke a sexuality of excess, of a passion that comes when Eros and Thanatos collide.
Bush’s public sexuality is centered in a Christian zeal that rejects sexual pleasure for itself, erotic fulfillment beyond the requirements of procreation. Like the Puritans of old and subsequent evangelicals, he seems to take literally the notion of original sin, in which the most intimate human relation is contaminated, forever scarring all subsequent generations. His sexuality seems to be one of prohibition, a sexuality infused with a shame of the physical body and its wilder passions. One can only suspect that this repression is rooted in a deep, personal knowledge–and fear–of the excesses of self-indulgence, an outgrowth of W’s equally threatening excesses of alcohol and cocaine. The Bush presidency is today’s incarnation of the long-festering Puritan curse.
But keeping with the times, Bush’s public sexuality embodies a highly fetishized eroticism, replete with all kinds of symbolic meaning. Strutting about in his Top Gun uniform or with his sleeves rolled up while he ineptly asserted command amidst the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, Bush is a fetishist’s dream come true. He understands (if only unconsciously) that the trappings of power, the costumes, the proclamations, the public presentations, are as essential as its exercise, the wars conducted, the deals cut, the legislation passed. Whether in a Top Gun outfit, a business suit or swaggering in a cowboy getup, Bush’s uniforms codify a fetishistic representation of power.
The Top Gun outfit that Bush wore on the Lincoln is but one option for those seriously into uniform fetishism. While his was a high-tech nylon-poly jumpsuit, others favor leather, latex/rubber, spandex, denim or silk. A man can choose from many uniforms, whether serviceman, policeman, fireman, cowboy, deliveryman, wrestler or priest. With our new gender-neutral military, a woman has her choice of the services to find that special uniform which is truly her or such old favorites as a French maid, nurse, waitress, hooker or nun. Anyone can choose a diaper.
Unfortunately, when private sexual fantasy confronts the forces of moral rectitude, the pervert often gets screwed. Nothing captures the lingering unacceptability of illicit sex more then what befell the 2004 Illinois GOP senatorial candidate, Jack Ryan, a millionaire playboy. Drawing upon previously-sealed divorce papers, the Chicago Tribune reported that Ryan’s ex-wife, the TV actress Jeri Ryan, star of “Star Trek” (or, as one commentator called her, “the borg-goddess”), “accused him of taking her to sex clubs in New York and Paris, where he tried to coerce her into having sex with him in front of strangers.” The revelations forced Ryan to withdraw from the election, leading to Barack Obama’s victory. An object lesson as to what awaits those who challenge sexual mores in Mr. Bush’s America.
As the Foley scandal continues to unravel, the great unspoken fears among Republicans–and raised by Christian commentators and bloggers–is that Foley did violate (whether through sexual assault or seductive email exchanges) one or more of the pages and that a Republican man-boy sex ring could be operating in Congress. Recently, CBS’s Gloria Borger reported on what is known as “The List” — what an unidentified House Republican called a “network of gay staffers and gay members who protect each other and did the Speaker a disservice.” A few days later, New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich added fuel to the fire by making public that every month or so, ten top staff members from Capitol Hill got together for dinner. Referring to themselves as the “P Project,” a nod to P Street that cuts through Washington’s version of boy’s town, they met to commiserate about their experiences being gay Republicans.
The List includes nine chiefs of staffs, two press secretaries and two directors of communications. If accurate, it shows that some of the Christian right’s favorite Washington legislators, including Representative Katherine Harris, Robert Dornan and Henry Hyde and Senators Bill Frist, George Allen, Mitch McConnell and Rick Santorum, knowingly hired gay staffers. These insiders join a growing gay caucus within the Republican orbit that includes Jim Kolbe (Arizona), the retiring (and only “out”) Republican Congressman, as well as retired–and disgraced–Rep. Ed Schrock (VA), a virulent right-winger forced to resign when his secret homosexuality was made public; questions about the sexuality of David Dreier (R-CA) circulate in the Los Angles gay press. This orbit also includes two legislative insiders central to the Foley affair, Jeff Trandahl, the former House clerk, and Kirk Fordham, former aide to Foley and Tom Reynolds (R-NY). Most disturbing, against a background of Christian fundamentalist denunciation of homosexuality as a sin, a value embraced by the Republican party, none of these upright political leaders repudiated the belief, let alone left the party.
Does a Congressperson’s or legislative aide’s sexual orientation matter? Under the values of an ideal “bourgeois” society, one in which capitalist marketplace relations determine legal conventions, sexual orientation should define a person the same way her or his gender, race, national origin or religion (or atheism) defines the person–that is, not at all. The two bedrock premises of modernity — equality as a citizen and as raw labor power — should serve as the determining criteria of value. As we know all too well, we do not live under conditions of ideal bourgeois capitalism.
Precapitalist traditions are often invoked to contain capitalism’s drive to commodify all social relations. In the U.S., these values are most strongly embodied in religious dogma as well as in notions of hereditary (i.e., “white”) class privilege. Traditionalist values are invoked to try to halt the marketplace from turning the most basic human relations, particularly sexual intimacies, into a cash exchange. This explains, for example, the strong stand fundamentalists publicly take against pornography and prostitution–what they do in private is another matter. Unfortunately, the Christian right and the Republicans, like all too many Americans, are so entranced by the spectacle of marketplace exploitation (and the privileges they garner from this exploitation) that they are stymied in their best–and complicit in their worst — efforts to stop the drive to commodify all things human.
No wonder then that the most threatening aspect of the unfolding Foley scandal is not that there is a Republican man-boy sex ring operating in Congress, but that there well could be one operating. The history of male culture throughout history, especially within macho and overly patriarchal institutions, is ripe with examples of such relations — or what some analysts call “male intergenerational intimacy”. This intimacy has found expression in classic Greece, feudal Muslim society, Christian religious orders, military organizations, prisons and innumerable prep schools. These institutions often foster a culture of abuse due to the privilege that endows the men in power (whether priest or headmaster) with the authority to violate the youths in their charge. So why not the “old boys club” that is the U.S. Congress?
Whatever finally emerges from the ongoing Foley investigations and the Republican coverup will only add one more piece to the ever-growing list of scandalous actions of the Bush presidency. These actions, from Ashcroft’s coverup of the Justice Department statues to Bush fetishistic parade on the Abraham Lincoln, Abu Ghraib and, finally, Foley’s pathetic conduct, represent not only a deep moral bankruptcy and a profound misuse of power, but also a profound sexual panic. This may well represent Bush-the-Lesser’s ultimate historical legacy.
DAVID ROSEN is completing the manuscript for Perversions: America’s Secret Passion for Deviant Sexual Pleasures. He is author of, most recently, “Sex & the City of Orgies,” a book review of Sex in the City: An Illustrated History (by Alison Maddex) and NYCSEX: How New York City Transformed Sex in America (New York Museum of Sex) for Sexuality and Culture. He is also author of Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project, and has written for Red Herring, Hollywood Reporter, San Francisco Focus and other publications. He is convener/ executive producer of Digital Independence, the forum on creativity, technology and democracy. He can be reached at: email@example.com