By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
Every melodrama needs a villain. And the same holds true for melodramatic Washington scandals.
But in politics, the role of "villain" can change -- suddenly. Let's consider four scandals spread over four different decades, with an eye to who gets tagged as villainous.
In the case of Watergate, Republican President Nixon was almost certainly not aware of the original break-in of the Democratic National Committee, conducted by his minions in 1972. But the Democrats who controlled Congress and their allies in the "Eastern Establishment" had long hated Nixon; it's fair to say they assigned him arch-villain status even before he entered the Oval Office.
And yet Nixon was no innocent. As he said of his 1974 resignation, "I gave them a sword": That is, his Watergate cover-up, recorded on tape, proved to be the weapon his opponents wielded to cut down his presidency. Which is to say, Nixon remains mostly a villain, 30-plus years later.
A dozen years later, in 1986, Democrats were almost as eager to spear Ronald Reagan in the wake of Iran-Contra; they would have been happy to ruin another Republican president. But Reagan could honestly say he was out of the loop -- some said out to lunch -- in regard to illegal events. So others took the fall. Reagan was diminished by the scandal, but he left office in January 1989 with his popularity at high levels, and history has been kind to him since. So no enduring villain status for the Gipper.
In the '90s, Bill Clinton proved to be guilty of at least some of the sexual improprieties that the Republicans accused him of, but the 42nd president and his cadre of determined defenders brilliantly turned the tables on the GOP. OK, Clinton did a bad thing in the White House, conceded his fellow Democrats eventually, but they insisted the Republicans were witch-hunters and hypocrites.
It worked. In one of the most astounding reversals of fortune in U.S. political history, the Democrats actually gained seats in the 1998 midterm elections, derailing any real hope among Republicans that they could ever drive Clinton out of office.
So how to sum up the 42nd president? He left the presidency as a popular figure, and yet a bad aftertaste of scandal hurt Al Gore in his 2000 presidential race and will probably taint Hillary Rodham Clinton's run in 2008.
And now the latest villain, Mark Foley. The Florida Republican already has admitted his bad behavior. But even so, the level of his villainy is in flux. Various observers, for various reasons, have attempted to "contextualize" his bad behavior. The gay angle, for instance, has provided some pundit-fodder; Andrew Sullivan, writing in The New Republic, expressed a "twinge" of sympathy for the ex-congressman, putting some of the blame for Foley's problems on the "compartmentalization" of his life -- as a gay man "closeted" in a substantially anti-gay party.
Others will attempt to provide a different kind of context: Democrats and liberal blogospherians are barely interested in Foley and his personal demons; the left's goal is to demonize a larger target, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his Republican majority. We can stipulate that the House GOPers were not eager, to be sure, to air their dirty Foley-laundry. But at the same time, everyone has privacy rights, everyone is innocent until proven guilty -- and nobody wanted to be accused of gay-bashing.
So now the question: Can anti-Republicans succeed in wreathing a Foley-fog -- the proverbial "appearance of impropriety" -- around the entire Republican Party this November? If recent polls are to be believed, Republicans will, in fact, be smoked on Election Day.
But there's still almost a month of campaigning -- and spinning -- to go. If Republicans can communicate that Foley was a "lone villain" who fooled them, too, they have a chance to recover. Because it's forgivable to be fooled by a villain. But it's unforgivable to be a villain yourself.
Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday. Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.