The Wrestling Lifestyle

So senior Republicans and Speaker Denny Hastert missed -- perhaps willfully -- the Mark Foley problem until it blew up on them. Hearing a few blowsy Republicans and in particular their (potentially pebble-in-shoe, humble) Christian conservative base share views on the fallout is like standing once again on the far side of a canyon-esque cultural divide: who are these people? And how do they end up being quoted straight-faced in the national newspaper of record?

That Foley was gay was apparently widely known on the Hill and quietly incorporated into many Republicans' own sense of self-worth and political expediency. (Vote to ban gay marriage, but it doesn't make you a bigot: here's a gay colleague! Voting with you! And helping you seem a bit more PC, particularly to yourself.) But when it was time to speak publicly about the errant gay in their midst it's plain how far the tolerance goes on the best of days. "People have their own lifestyles as long as they mind their own business and play by the rules," said Republican Ray LaHood of Illinois. What are the rules? Former Representative and conservative TV host Joe Scarborough explained: talk about guns, chewing tobacco and ride around in a pickup truck. (How does that work for Olympia Snowe?) By contrast, said Scarborough, gay Democrats can "strut around and still get a standing ovation." Ever seen Barney Frank try to strut? I'd give Denny Hastert a standing O if he stayed on his toes long enough, but like Frank he could stand to lose a few and it wouldn't be pretty. Strutting's easier if you're built like, say, Donald Rumsfeld. Though I think Rumsfeld's more of a preener.

The "lifestyle" reference is common on the far side of the divide -- see the audience waiting for the Christian rock concert in Virginia Beach reported on yesterday -- as if sexuality were a style one chooses, like living in an urban or rural area and reflecting those lifestyles. One has formal or casual lifestyles, harried or relaxed ones, organic, synthetic, Southern. Being attracted to the same sex means you are drawn to sharing the greatest intimacy with members of that sex; they are the ones you fall in love with. If you're lucky, you overcome the societal and psychological barriers against those feelings and get to choose to live out your love life, which includes sex. (If you're unlucky you bury it deep and develop a self-hatred that can become so intense it will allow you to take risks like sending creepy e-mails to underage kids.) Heterosexual people will understand what I'm talking about, since if things go well they too fall in love -- or lust, ideally both -- and practice intimacy with their opposite-sex partner as often as possible. Is that a heterosexual lifestyle? I believe it's just life.

Denny Hastert seems remarkably suited for his particular sorry role and the way the Foley disaster has played out. Consider that Hastert was a high school wrestling coach. His charges were young males, at an age when beauty, rage, strength and tenderness merge in a coursing confusion of hormones, grappling with each other in tights for hours on end in a steamy gymnasium. If you were Denny Hastert -- glance again at his puzzled face, his hunched shuffle as he heads to the podium -- could you afford to allow thoughts of sexual tension surface? As you showed a 16-year old how one hold means putting your hand over this other 16-year-old's neck and down his chest, like this, and threading your other hand through his legs, under his butt, over his crotch to join your other hand, like this; now hold him! Pull him on your lap, kid, or flip him over onto the mat. Get on top!

The House likely seemed an easier place for Hastert to avoid such potentially discomfiting distractions. Until now.