By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
From the opening line of his statement yesterday, Sen. Larry Craig was in trouble. "Thank you all very much for coming out today," he began.
"Coming out" was perhaps not the best phrase for a guy who had pleaded guilty to some rather un-senatorial conduct in an airport men's room -- and now stands accused in his home-state paper of a homosexual encounter in Union Station.
Alas for the Idaho Republican, it was not his first mistake.
No, his first mistake was on June 11, when he went into a restroom stall in the Minneapolis airport and, according to the arrest report, tapped his foot in a "signal often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct."
This was followed closely by his second mistake: handing the arresting officer his business card and asking, "What do you think about that?"
Mistake No. 3? Explaining to the police that his foot touched the undercover officer's foot in the next stall because he has "a wide stance when going to the bathroom."
Mistake No. 4: Pleading guilty on Aug. 8 to disorderly conduct, and telling nobody -- not even a lawyer or his wife -- before the news broke Monday and Craig's spokesman chalked it up to a "he said/he said misunderstanding."
This quartet of errors landed the senator before the television cameras yesterday outside the Wells Fargo building in downtown Boise. Standing next to his wife, who wore sunglasses and looked as if she felt ill, the senator almost shouted as he asserted his heterosexuality.
"Let me be clear: I am not gay. I never have been gay," Craig said. Evidently, Craig did not think this was clear enough, because moments later, he explained why he kept the arrest a secret. "I wasn't eager to share this failure, but I should have anyway -- because I am not gay!"
The Associated Press rushed out a bulletin: "Sen. Larry Craig says, 'I am not gay.' " CNN put up a "Breaking News" banner announcing, "Sen. Craig: I am not gay, and never have been gay."
The Drudge Report went with the headline "Brokeback Bathroom."
As the Craigs departed, somebody in the crowd that had gathered called out after the senator: "Hey, what if you were gay?"
Heckling the disgraced lawmaker at that moment seemed over the top, but the question was a reasonable one. Craig didn't get into trouble for being gay; he got into trouble because he "engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment."
Though he has been writing laws for the past 32 years, the senator spoke yesterday as if he lacked the most basic grasp of the legal system.
"While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in hopes of making it go away," he said, blaming this on his failure to hire a lawyer. "I have now retained counsel, and I am asking counsel to review this matter and to advise me on how to proceed."
The retained counsel will have a difficult job, given the two statements that appear on the guilty plea right above the signature of one Larry Edwin Craig: "I understand that the court will not accept a plea of guilty from anyone who claims to be innocent," and "I now make no claim that I am innocent of the charge to which I am entering a plea of guilty."
Who is to blame for this fundamental misunderstanding by the veteran lawmaker? Of course: the media. In particular, the Idaho Statesman, whose article published Monday night quoted a man with close ties to Republican officials as saying he had a sexual encounter with the senator in the men's room in Union Station.
"My family and I had been relentlessly and viciously harassed by the Idaho Statesman," Craig complained. He was so mad about it, in fact, that the word "viciously" at first came out has "vicially."
The senator wore a casual, short-sleeve shirt tucked into a pair of khakis -- presenting a softer image than the mug shot that had been on television all day showing a severe Craig in business attire with an American-flag pin on his lapel. But no fashion adjustment would overcome what the senator acknowledged was "an issue that is not yet over."
That's a safe bet, considering that his Senate colleagues offered no support as they sent the matter to the ethics committee, and presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on CNBC, dismissed the man who had until Monday been his Idaho chairman as "disgusting" and beneath "the level of respect and dignity that we would expect."
Twice in his statement, Craig, speaking beneath sunny skies, apologized for the "cloud over Idaho" caused by his arrest. Actually, the cloud is over Craig, not his home state.
But it's easy to see how Craig might overestimate the size of his shadow: He has a wide stance.