Taking No Prisoners -- and No Questions
O.J. had his white Bronco. For David Vitter, it's a white Rodeo.
Eight days after disclosing his involvement with an alleged prostitution service, the Republican senator from Louisiana is still refusing to answer questions about what he termed his "serious sin." And so returning to Washington yesterday for the first time since the scandal broke, Vitter and his Isuzu getaway vehicle treated the Capitol to a cat-and-mouse game not seen here since Gary Condit slinked through these halls.
Vitter had hoped to ease in quietly when he arrived at 10:30 at a meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee's aviation subcommittee. The hearing, "Improving Air Services to Small and Rural Communities," would ordinarily have been a snooze.
But moments after Vitter's arrival, reporters began to file in -- abandoning the small pieces of lawn furniture some of them had been occupying at a makeshift Camp David outside the senator's office. Vitter rocked in his chair and looked petulantly at the growing mob. When he rose to leave the hearing room an hour later, about 15 journalists bolted out another door to intercept him. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), watching the stampede, couldn't suppress a smile.
"Oh, my God," cried a woman in a white dress as the reporters stormed into the hall.
The pack bounded after Vitter until he finally turned around angrily and repeated the "very straightforward statements" he had already made. "I look forward today to being back at work, really focused on a lot of important issues for the people of Louisiana, like what we were discussing in the committee hearing."
Then he wheeled around and departed, ignoring questions shouted at his back. ". . . a distraction? . . . get some work done here? . . . Why won't you just deny the New Orleans madam?"
The senator hurried into the idling Isuzu, which sped east on C Street NE.
It's likely to become a common scene for Vitter, who is learning to move through the Capitol with the cunning of a house burglar. While reporters congregated outside the senators' second-floor dining room yesterday, Vitter snaked his way through a first-floor corridor and climbed a back stairway to enter the room from the rear. He skipped out of lunch early, again through the back door, and, ignoring a reporter's question, darted for the Senate chamber. When it came time to vote, Vitter walked out of the privacy of the cloakroom with his head down, gave a quick thumbs-up and fled the chamber. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke quietly as they watched the furtive lawmaker disappear. McCain shook his head.
Vitter's take-no-questions approach to his troubles has been highly unorthodox -- and, if yesterday's circus was any indication, untenable. Crisis Management 101 teaches politicians to get the facts out, answer the questions and then move on. Vitter has disappeared, issued ambiguous statements and blamed reporters. It didn't help that the senator, eager to flee questions about his bedroom activities, chose to return to the Senate just as workers were delivering cots, pillows and linens for an all-night debate dubbed a "slumber party."
Nor is it helpful to Vitter that he has been one of the top promoters in Congress of the "sanctity of marriage." In the House in 1999, he was a sponsor of a resolution "recognizing the importance of strong marriages." Running for the Senate in 2004, Vitter urged each municipality in Louisiana to enact a pro-marriage proclamation as part of Marriage Appreciation Week.
"I will continue to work in Congress to protect the family values that the people of Louisiana hold dear," he said that same year as he championed the Marriage Protection Act.
In June of last year, Vitter again championed the cause, saying there was no issue before the Senate more important than "a strong two-parent family." He added: "Some folks in Washington may not get that, but certainly a lot of folks in the real world, including Louisiana, get it." The next day, he returned to the cameras. "The American people know traditional marriage is a vital institution that goes to the core of so many of the deep social problems," he announced.
Vitter had his own deep social problems yesterday, and the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid (Nev.), wasn't about to help him. Reid argued that "this should have a full airing," because "there are a lot of accusations about prostitutes here in Washington, prostitutes in Louisiana."
Slyly, Reid added: "But I'm not going to get into this issue."
Vitter's Republican colleagues in the Senate arranged for him to apologize to them in private, just after the opening prayer at their weekly luncheon. As the senators filed in for the apology lunch, Candida Wolff, the White House's chief lobbyist, detected an odor flowing from the room. "Smells like fish," she reported.
Though they ultimately rewarded his contrition with a standing ovation, some colleagues weren't sure they liked the smell of things, either. "I don't have any thoughts," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said of Vitter as she arrived. She reconsidered. "I have many thoughts," she revised. "They're just unexpressed." Did Vitter break the law? "I'm not an expert in prostitution law, I'm pleased to say," she replied.