Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Larry Craig's wide Idaho stance

[Larry Craig thinks about new uses for a prosthetic hand. From the old Senate Veterans Affairs Committee site.]

-- by Dave

There have been a lot of unwritten secrets in Idaho politics over the years. Larry Craig's was one of them.

Everybody who covered politics in Idaho over the years knew about them. About how Rep. George Hansen, in addition to being a publicity-hound and a Bircherite kook, was also corrupt. About Steve Symms' incessant philandering, first as a congressman and then as a senator. About the long-running affair between Rep. Helen Chenoweth and Sagebrush Rebellion guru Vern Ravenscroft.

These secrets all eventually came out, of course, though only in Hansen's case could you say the press had much of anything to do with it (and the reporters who dogged Hansen were significantly helped by the IRS and FBI, who produced Hansen's eventual convictions on tax-fraud and money-laundering charges). Symms only retired from the Senate in 1992 after it became self-evident that his long-suffering wife, Fran, was about to go nuclear with their divorce proceedings; and Chenoweth, who was similarly exposed by an enraged spouse (Ravenscroft's wife went public) actually won re-election after her glass house was shattered. (She only left Congress because she did in fact honor her original vow to limit her terms.)

No, for the most part we in the press just kept quiet about these secrets. I suspect knowledge of them colored our coverage, but nobody ever proposed digging into these politicians' personal lives. It was considered, frankly, irrelevant and ultimately unworthy of serious reportage. I doubt you could have found an editor at any Idaho paper who would have approved such an investigation.

We'd heard things about Larry Craig, too, as early as 1980, when he first ran for Congress -- just rumors, of course, but the kind that in retrospect were warning signs, involving supposed cruising behavior on the University of Idaho campus when he was at school there. Craig replaced Symms in Congress that year -- after Symms managed to unseat longtime Sen. Frank Church (by less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the vote) -- and after having endured years of the blustering phony Symms, the mild-mannered and affable Craig was actually a real relief.

But the rumors began to take on a different shape just two years later. As Joel Connelly recalled this morning:
Craig has triggered rumors about himself. In the House, during the early 1980s, he called a news conference to deny any role in a scandal in which two colleagues were censored for having sex with House pages.

The news conference baffled many; no one had accused Craig of anything.

Actually, what I recall about that press conference was that many of us understood the context: Craig was keeping those rumors about a gay lifestyle, which were already circulating regarding the House page scandal, knocked down. We just didn't write about it.

Over the years, the rumors kept coming. When Craig finally got married in 1987, the rumors flew that it was a "cover" marriage. But the gist of most of the rumors simply suggested that Craig was a closeted gay, and most reporters and editors figured (rightly) that this at least was his own business.

What they ignored at the time were similarly persistent rumors about possible illegal and unethical behavior: Craig cruising men's restrooms, or being involved with young House employees. Perhaps more importantly, they simultaneously let Craig posture endlessly about "family values" and the damnable "gay agenda." He supported a 2006 amendment to the Idaho Constitution banning gay marriage. He voted against a federal hate-crimes bill because it included sexual orientation as one of the categories of bias. Memorably, he also got on his moral high horse and condemned Bill Clinton during the Monica brouhaha as "a nasty, bad, naughty boy".

Well, Republicans rewrote the press rules during the Monica madness: digging into a politician's private life became not only fair game, but a certain path to fame and fortune. The Beltway media mavens like to tell us that Drudge Rules Our World -- but the Drudge Rules, and they have so often since Monica, have turned around and bitten conservatives on the ass once again.

Because Craig's cruising habits were creating too many rumors to ignore. Finally, as mcjoan recently noted, the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey set out to find out if there was any substance to them, and engaged in a months-long investigation of the matter. After producing it this spring, though, its publication was held up for various legal considerations, not least of which was that Craig himself apparently threatened the Statesman with a suit -- note Craig's claim today that Popkey had harassed his family, and that it was this harassment that led him to plead guilty in the restroom case in hopes of avoiding publicity. (That worked out real well, didn't it?)

Well, after the arrest Popkey's report finally ran, and it's worth reading just to see the track record that Craig has amassed in leading this covert second life. That record itself is enough to render laughable Craig's claim that his main mistake was in pleading guilty, that his behavior in the men's room was innocent and misunderstood. And really, he's not gay. Got that? (As one wag I know put it: "Well, maybe not, but the men he had sex with were.")

Craig, of course, is history now. You know that when Hugh Hewitt and Jonah Goldberg throw you under the bus, you're road kill fershure. Talk about a wide stance -- Craig looks like Wile E. Coyote after the roadrunner gives him the once-over with the steamroller.

At this point, it's all about picking up the remaining pieces. Randy Stapilus whose continuing coverage of the Craig scandal has been top-notch (as always) offers some clues as to who's going to emerge from the pigpile with Craig's drawers. And mcjoan reports that Rep. Bill Sali -- yes, the same Bill Sali who intimated that Muslims don't belong in Congress -- is in the front row and ready to jump in.

But the lingering question, hovering in the air well after the pigpile picks up and moves on, has to do with the press's role in the unfolding drama. The right, of course, is whining that a Democrat would never earn this kind of coverage for his sexual foibles (evidently they've succumbed to a mind ray that has erased all memory of the Monica/Paula Jones matter). The flip side, though, may be more salient: Did the press enable Craig through the years by remaining silent about the mounting rumors, leaving those stones tastefully unturned? Or was that the right call all along?

It's not really any fun watching a man like Larry Craig self-immolate. It's really kind of sad. Drudge may rule our world, but that doesn't make it a better place.

Neither, however, does an ethos that indulges hypocrites who shove a moral code upon the rest of us they themselves are unwilling to live up to. Larry Craig deserved to have been exposed for the hypocrite he is a long time ago. The fact that he wasn't doesn't speak well for the watchdogs of the press, whose masked gentility has, in this case at least, been exposed as a simple anachronism ripe for manipulation by the cynical.

Somewhere in between lies the job of being a journalist.

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