Sen. Larry E. Craig, the Idaho Republican who was forced to resign after a police sting in an airport restroom caught him acting a little like he wanted to have sex with a plainclothes cop, ought to have made a better case that he was the victim and not the predator.
Craig was the episode's only victim, even if it was of his own long career of showy piety, but he was the victim. Craig complained that his hometown newspaper hounded him into making the fatal misjudgment of pleading guilty to a misdemeanor by its relentless campaign to prove old rumors that he was gay. The paper, the Idaho Statesman at Boise, does have an infamous history of crusading against homosexuals, but Craig's worst tormentor was his own political party.
For 10 years the Republican Party has been beset by an endless succession of sex and ethics scandals, all of them far worse than the senator's vaguely suggestive behavior in a stall of the men's room, which would have been thrown out of court as evidence of criminal activity if it involved anything but homosexuality, but the party never before had risen in instant unison to insist that a Republican resign. Party leaders in and out of Congress seem to have concluded that after literally dozens it could not stand one more scandal, especially of the same-sex variety, and still claim to be the party of God and the family.
Not a single party leader demanded the resignation of David Vitter, the blow-dried senator from Louisiana who apologized this summer for his connection to a prostitution ring in Washington, D.C., and was accused of frequenting a high-priced brothel in New Orleans. The difference, it was explained, was that Vitter had not pled guilty to a crime. But paying a prostitute for sex is a crime in most states and private and consenting homosexual sex is not.
The timing could not have been worse for Craig. The Republican leadership's cover-up of the page scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley of Florida last year was blamed for part of the GOP's debacle in the 2006 elections. Now the party is on the verge of losing the presidency and being on the losing end of a landslide in Senate and House races, owing heavily to the accumulated evidence of hypocrisy on the “moral” issues.
Some spirit of nature there is that wants to expose hypocrisy. One by one, those who trumpeted the loudest moral judgments against Bill Clinton for his dalliance with a White House intern had their own serial adultery exposed, starting with House leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston and the righteous Henry Hyde and Dan Burton. Let's not forget Craig's prim colleague from Idaho, Rep. Helen Chenoweth, who after condemning Clinton's unforgivable moral lapse had to admit a long-running affair with her boss, which she had previously denied. But she said she had spoken with God about it and he had pardoned her. Idaho voters forgave her, too.
But homosexuality apparently is something quite different in Idaho, home of the most virulent conservatism in the country. Craig, who ceremoniously opposed gay marriage and extending equal rights to gays, including protection from hate crimes, is not the first hypocrite but apparently the first from Idaho. Pat Robertson's congressman, Ed Schrock of Virginia, dropped out of his re-election race three years ago when he was outed as a homosexual.
The whole gay-bashing GOP strategy started in the early 1980s with the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), which funded attack ads against Democrats on such moral issues as “the homosexual movement,” as its director Terry Dolan called it. Dolan subsequently died of AIDS and his associate, Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein, continued to run gay-bashing campaigns for Republicans until three years ago, when he took advantage of Massachusetts' new gay-marriage law and wed his partner.
What is troubling about all these men is how they can publicly condemn something that is so much of their being. But it is not hard to understand. Sen. J. William Fulbright once infamously described it, explaining why he had spouted racism while privately abhorring it. Every legislator, he said, learns that there are certain convictions of constituents that are not of paramount importance to the future of the republic but “are too dangerous to trifle with.” He humored voters' prejudice, he averred, so that he could be free to exercise his own will on the important stuff.
Craig had more to worry about. The Idaho Statesman for a year had been investigating rumors about him that began in 1982 when Leroy Williams, an honor student at Hall High School at Little Rock and a page of Republican Congressman Ed Bethune of Searcy, fingered him as one of three representatives with whom he had sex. Williams later recanted his story.
After news leaked that Craig had copped a plea on the Minneapolis excapade, the Statesman ran a story that included various allegations of homosexuality against him. Craig no doubt remembered the Statesman's crusade against gays in 1955, the closest thing since to the Salem, Mass., Witch Trials of 1692. Under headlines like “Crush This Monster,” the paper campaigned to rid Boise of homosexuals, demanding that the police and prosecutor take action to rid the city of “this mess.” Sixteen people, including a prominent banker, were charged with being homosexuals. Only one beat the charges.
The closet is a crowded but lonely and dispiriting room. Larry Craig's failing is that he might have helped raise his party's conscience but he didn't.