On April 27, Republicans awoke to a PR disaster. Tucked away on page A6, a brief Wall Street Journal article updated the saga of former Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who was convicted in March of taking bribes. Investigators were expanding their inquiry to determine whether, in addition to the $600,000 he pocketed from defense contractor Brent Wilkes, Cunningham had also accepted the complimentary services of prostitutes.
The article further revealed that investigators were looking into the possibility that other members of Congress or their staff were being similarly serviced. Wilkes, it seems, was using a sketchy limousine company to connect his friends with escorts and making hospitality suites available in that most suggestive of Washington crash pads, the Watergate Hotel.
Hookergate was upon us.
While the mainstream media trod carefully, the blogosphere jumped in with both feet. Building on the reliable reporting of the San Diego Union Tribune, bloggers began cataloguing arcane details and trying to finger the targets of the widening investigation. The more the bloggers raked, the more muck they found. Shirlington Limousine, for example, Wilkes’ connection to a ready supply of prostitutes, turned out to have sweetheart contracts with Homeland Security and other federal agencies, even though its ex-con owner had a 62-page rap sheet.
Scrutiny soon settled upon the highest echelons of the CIA. Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, a bosom pal of Wilkes, and a mysterious person known as “Nine Fingers” were identified as frequent guests at Wilkes’ bacchanals. They turned out to be, respectively, the No. 3 man at the CIA and a former staffer for CIA Director Porter Goss when he was chair of the House committee on intelligence. Goss lasted a few days before tendering a hasty resignation. Foggo followed the next week.
Such is the power of Hookergate, and the best is still to come. It’s too early to say how damaging it will be, but it bids fair to become a campaign-season train wreck. As scandals go, it’s certainly a twofer, casting a harsh light on both the Bush administration and congressional Republicans.
It’s unknown exactly who, or how many, but more congressmen are reportedly under investigation for their ties to Wilkes and co-conspirator Mitchell Wade. GOP strategist Ed Rollins opined – perhaps tactically – that as many as 15 members could eventually face grand juries.
To make matters worse, Republicans couldn’t get in front of this story. Goss’s departure was painfully clumsy, especially for a White House that stage-manages its every move. The extemporized “resignation” – with no replacement in sight, no explanation forthcoming – had “the unconvincing choreography of the Andropov-era Soviet Union,” as a UPI reporter put it.
The administration lamely tried to spin Goss’s exit as the consequence of a turf war he’d been fighting with intelligence czar John Negroponte. But soon it became clear that Goss, the hatchet man Bush and Cheney put in to purge the CIA of liberal bias, was hoist by his own petard. Competent management, much less leadership, at the agency clearly took a back seat to the more important job of ideological cleansing.
Ideological overreach plus mendacity plus two-fisted boodling. Sound familiar? Hookergate is the story of the Bush presidency, all wrapped up in one easy-to-understand scandal. Needless to say, this is a golden opportunity to take control of the campaign debate. Why not present the imbroglio as a rich object lesson in how the Republican Party governs?
Democratic strategists should take a leaf from the 2004 GOP playbook and work with the “netroots” to hammer this home. The bloggers are way ahead of other media in terms of analysis and even reporting, and they’re moving the debate.
Hookergate’s turning out to be a barrel of monkeys. And we haven’t even met the hookers yet.