Second thoughts on some stories in the news:

About now former Congressman Mark Foley and those young pages he so adored: That story stopped being about child sex abuse and child prevention a few days after it broke. Now it’s partisan politics and Democrats must be secretly delighted that the Republican, champion of “family values” and all that stands for, was caught as he played out his gay sex fantasies.

But make no mistake: Foley’s crime would have been just as bad if the objects of his desire had been teenage girls. He was taking advantage of both their youth, and their position as ambitious employees eager to rise up the ladder of power. The real shame is that the Congress has known about this problem for decades. There was the smoke that child protection advocate Ken Wooden and I investigated back in the 1980s (described in this space a week ago). And the Washington Post reported last week on the 1982 sex and drug scandal involving pages and congressmen that led to a thorough investigation and the censure of two congressmen (one from each party).

But while the Washington media pursues the “what did they know and when did they know it” aspect of the scandal, the reality of teaching your children how to be decent people but not fawning prey for the bad guys continues to be a dilemma. In reaction to my column last week about Wooden and his CBS News demonstration of how easy it is to trap even very bright teenagers (such as students at Princeton University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice), my colleague Kathy Spring made this observation:

“It is so easy to lure children. I tried to abductor-proof my own children, telling them to never, never go off anywhere with a stranger. Shortly thereafter I saw the older one, at about age five, climb into the back of a pick-up truck to help someone load something. The younger one, meanwhile, declared ‘I don’t know any strangers!’”

But Spring raised a good question: What is the cost of teaching children to treat every stranger like a potential abductor? “My guess is that the values of helpfulness and trust that make for a civilized society will win out over parental rulings every time,” Spring notes.

I hope she’s right, and in that sense I think the Princeton students tricked by Wooden into helping him load his van should be given a little credit for their charitable instincts. Wooden pulled the ruse in broad daylight, on the busy stretch of University Place near the Wawa convenience store.

Climb into the van for a “sound check” with a man claiming to be a casting agent for a commercial? No way. Accept $100 in cash from a stranger who wants you to help him navigate the streets of Manhattan, as several John Jay criminal justice students did? You gotta be crazy, mister. But help a guy with his arm in a sling carry a heavy package to his car? That still seems like the decent thing to do.

About New York Times correspondent R. W. Apple, who died October 4 at the age of 71: As the chairman of the Daily Princetonian in the late 1960s I was well aware of “Johnny” Apple and his rather unusual career path — unusual because as a staffer and later chairman of the ‘Prince’ himself in the mid-1950s he had flunked out of college not once but twice. Still he had become the New York Times’ man in Vietnam when I was editing the college paper in the turbulent late ‘60s, and his was a byline to watch.

I met him twice. The first was a few years after my graduation, when Apple came through town and visited with a few people invited to the home of the dean of students, William D’O. Lippincott. Just as the lengthy obituary in the New York Times described him, Apple was already a larger than life character, working Lippincott’s phone on and off during the evening, chasing down leads, updating editors, lining up interviews.

The second encounter was in May, 1988, when Apple spoke at the annual Princetonian banquet. By then I was a trustee of the paper and looked forward to hearing the chief Washington correspondent’s views on the upcoming election. It was 1988, I recall vividly, because Apple was late to the Nassau Inn ballroom for a very memorable reason. He needed to make a few phone calls from his room concerning the breaking news of the day — reporters catching Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart cavorting with a woman — not his wife — aboard an aptly named boat, “Monkey Business.”

The breaking news, Apple recalled, reminded him of an assignment he had as a young reporter in the early ‘60s. The Times had heard one of the many rumors that President John F. Kennedy was cheating again on Jackie. This one had a particular grain of specificity: It was happening over a weekend at the Pierre Hotel in New York. As Apple told the story, he and some colleagues staked out the hotel, watching every entrance for a glimpse of a man who might be the president.

But there was no story, said Apple, then pausing for effect as any consummate story teller would: “We never saw the president the whole weekend,” Apple sighed. “All we ever saw was Angie Dickinson come and go a few times.”

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