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A Precedented Scandal
And while Johnson's farmers might still be riled up about gay marriage, they've come to grips, many of them, anyway, with homosexuality as a fact of life. A May survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that four in 10 Americans -- and one in three who said they were conservative Republicans -- have a close friend or family member who is gay.
Still, you don't have to be a Republican politician in a conservative state to feel locked in the closet. Former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, a Democrat in a far more hospitable state, describes how he was so convinced that coming out would end his political career that he "settled for the detached anonymity of bookstores and rest stops."
But the GOP seems to find the existence of gay people, at least gay Republicans, an especially inconvenient truth.
Consider party leaders' "don't ask, don't tell" reaction to repeated indications of former Florida congressman Mark Foley's inappropriate behavior with male pages. Before Foley's instant messages became public, they just wanted the problem to go away so they didn't have to think about it.
Now there is the furious swiftness of the GOP's response to Craig. Senate Republican leaders have called for an ethics committee investigation and stripped Craig of his committee assignments; presidential candidate Mitt Romney couldn't boot Craig as his Idaho chairman fast enough. Would the reaction have been nearly so fierce if homosexuality wasn't involved?
When Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter's phone number turned up on the accused D.C. madam's call list and he acknowledged a "very serious sin" in his past, there was hardly a peep from the GOP leadership. Craig pleaded guilty to a crime, and Vitter wasn't charged, but lawmakers' squeamishness with gay sex, I suspect, played a big role in the differing treatment.
Walter Jenkins would have understood only too well.