I do not live in Minnesota.
Nor have I ever written a column about any congressional race.
But what Patty Wetterling, Democratic congressional candidate in Minnesota’s sixth district, just did is so wrong, so dishonest, so low even for the generally negative tone of political advertising, and so injurious to children, that I am breaking a lifelong silence on congressional races to beg Democrats and others in her district not to vote for her.
This is not motivated by partisanship; I would even prefer a candidate to the left of her. Vote for the Green candidate if there is one; write in someone to the left of her. But to vote for Patty Wetterling is to harm political discourse and compromise our society’s battle against child abuse.
Her recent television ad, referring to the Mark Foley scandal, states: "It shocks the conscience . . . congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children."
Even the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, among America’s most left/liberal newspapers, which essentially endorses only Democrats, published an article under the headline, "Wetterling ad overstates facts: The TV spot by the Sixth District candidate is wrong in stating that members of Congress admitted to a coverup — none has."
But that lie in the Patty Wetterling ad is actually the lesser of its sins. The greater sin, the unforgivable one, is its characterization that what former Republican Congressman Mark Foley did was "molest children."
Foley not only did not molest any children, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, he did not even engage in consensual sex with any page over the age of consent. (There was a relationship with one adult male who had served as a page.)
So that is the second lie in the Patty Wetterling ad. No one was molested. And no child was involved at any time in any way.
That is what prompts this anger at Patty Wetterling more than her lies, which she continues to defend. It is her use of the words "molest children" when everything that happened took place via the Internet, and the youngest page to receive his cyberspace attention was 16 years old.
Now, for the sake of clarity, lest there be even one reader who is wondering, I oppose any sexual activity between a politician and a page, even of majority age. In my capacity as a nationally syndicated radio talk show host I have had numerous young women (and men, but they are not relevant to this discussion in my case) serve as interns. I have always believed that in their eyes I was supposed to represent the ideals that I stand for, not a man on the hunt for young flesh.
Therefore, of course, I believe what Mark Foley did in his e-mails — attempt to seduce young men — was wrong.
But that is all he did. He never molested a child. First, he never touched any page(s), since you cannot sexually molest a person you don’t touch. It utterly cheapens the word "molest."
Second, no "children" were involved. A 16-year-old is a minor as far as sexual relations are concerned (though, ironically, not in Washington, D.C., whose Democratic lawmakers have made 16 the age of sexual consent). But minor is not the same as child. Foley had no sexual contact, verbal or physical, with any children to the best of anyone’s, including Patty Wetterling’s, knowledge.
To equate seductive e-mails to a 16-year-old — or even the more explicit instant messages with an 18-year-old (which no Republican knew about) — with "molesting children" — only undermines our efforts to fight the enormous, almost unparalleled, evil of child molestation. What Patty Wetterling has deliberately done for political gain is to cheapen, redefine, and thereby reduce hatred of, child molestation.
Democrats who excuse her point to the fact that she suffered the unspeakable tragedy of having her own child abducted 18 years ago.
This is a new development in American moral discourse — the granting to people who have suffered the loss of a child moral credibility, thereby excusing them from normal moral judgments. The father of Nick Berg, the young American slaughtered by Islamists in Iraq, has made morally absurd comments from the national platform accorded him as a grieving father; Cindy Sheehan has attained iconic status solely because her son was killed in Iraq.
The loss of a child entitles a parent to the deepest, sincerest sympathy the human race can offer; there is no pain like the loss of a child. But that loss does not justify using that sympathy to claim special moral status — incidentally, do any conservative parents use the loss of a child to claim that status? — let alone excuse immoral actions.
Patty Wetterling’s child was abducted in 1989, a loss compounded by the horror of never learning what happened to her child. She deserves every expression of sympathy the rest of us can muster. But that pain does not absolve her from normal moral considerations such as honesty in political discourse, let alone excuse her deliberate cheapening of the term "child molestation." If that ad helps her win, she will have done so at the price of diminishing the horror of real child molestation.
If Patty Wetterling believes that Mark Foley molested children, she does not understand the problem of child molestation. If she does not believe that Mark Foley molested children, she defamed a man and redefined molestation. In either case, she is not fit to serve in the U.S. Congress.