Barbecuing, Mark Foley Style

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"The Congressman is having some people over and wanted me to invite you. Really casual — bring whoever you want." The Congressman was Mark Foley, at the time an obscure second-term Florida Republican. The invitation was extended to a friend of mine who, like me, was covering Capitol Hill for Roll Call. The extender was Kirk Fordham, then an aide to Foley, and the event was an impromptu springtime evening barbeque a decade ago.

But my fellow reporter, who has since left the business and wishes to remain anonymous, had for some time felt that Foley was a little more friendly toward him than was comfortable, way friendlier than even the most chummy newsmaker or source need ever be. So he hollered across the newsroom that Foley had invited him over, but he wasn't sure of the Congressman's intentions so he'd only go if I would join him. It was a chance to engage in some source development and perhaps some amateur anthropology. You hang out in some strange situations as a journalist. It might even be fun. We headed over.

Foley lived in a row house near the House office buildings. Inside, it was crisply decorated. Most memorably, the living room showcased at least one framed photo of Foley with the actress Heather Locklear. Foley hinted that they'd dated. "The thing that struck me was how there were a ton of pictures of Foley with his arm around really hot women," recalls my reporter friend. Such photos may have swayed the voters back home. But here in Washington, at least, few were convinced. Most who knew Foley socially assumed he was gay — though before this year I had never heard even a rumor that he actively pursued teenage boys. (Indeed, until recently, few paid much attention to something they assumed was Foley's business.) If anything, the pictures seemed over the top, as my friend puts it, "as if he was going out of his way to prove his heterosexuality." At the same time, over the years, Foley seemed to go out of his way to flirt with my buddy — sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much.

The backyard was spacious by oft-cramped Capitol Hill standards. Foley was probably the oldest in a small crowd that downed burgers and hot dogs in addition to plenty of beer and probably a good many gin and tonics. Fordham was there, as I recall, and some of Foley's other aides, including some attractive young women. One or two other reporters were there in addition to my colleague and me.

The evening's entertainment was Foley. Before last week, his claim to fame on the Hill was a knack for impersonations and storytelling. He could mimic Bill Clinton, and both sides of an argument between outgoing House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a California Republican, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Charles Rangel of Harlem (two very different and very vivid characters). Foley regaled us with hilarious stories, about such things as the bizarre celebrity world of Rep. Sonny Bono, since killed in a skiing accident. Picture Cher dropping by the home of her ex-husband with new love Greg Allman for some nude sunbathing by Bono's pool.

My friend remembers that Foley was "really drunk at the party." What's more, he was insistent about the wild times that regularly unfolded at his townhouse, saying that it was often a late-night stop for House members finished with work but not quite ready to hit the hay. Pointing to some shrubbery in the corner, Foley said, "See those bushes over there? Last week at a party, Phil Crane was on his hands and knees throwing up in those bushes." Crane was a senior, archconservative Republican congressman from Chicago who entered alcohol treatment in 2000 and lost his re-election bid in 2004. Whether this was a dramatic touch or a true story is unclear. Asked about the tale today, Crane laughed. "Oh, geez, I don't recall any such incident. I don't recall even being at a party at his house. That's not to say that conceivably I wasn't, years ago." (Crane adds that he's still dry. "That was the easiest habit ever broke in my life. I drank Heineken for 50 years, and now I see those frosty bottles going by me in front of me at a reception — I can't even remember what it tasted like.") Crane is, coincidentally, the brother of ex-Rep. Dan Crane, another Illinois Republican, who was censured in the last big page scandal for having consensual sex with a 17-year-old female page.

Thankfully, stories of the alleged excesses of other days were as wild as it got for us that night. Foley, as far as I saw, behaved himself. After we left, I was in touch with him from time to time as a friendly news contact who was always good for a laugh. He once gave me a story-making quote for a scoop in Legal Times about another scandal. It was an account of another G.O.P. congressman saying, at a closed-door January 1997 Republican Conference meeting, that then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's own attorney had charged that Gingrich had "lied to him and had deceived the [ethics] committee."

Still, my friend's cautious request for a wingman that evening seemed appropriate. We appreciated Foley's bonhomie and interest in doing business. But we wanted to just be friends. When I saw that first batch of e-mails between Foley and a young page, recollections of that spring barbeque left me convinced that the story would get worse before it got better.