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A Precedented Scandal

By Ruth Marcus
Friday, August 31, 2007

He was an important political figure, arrested for engaging in lewd conduct in a public men's room. Married, with children, he told no one. Instead he pleaded guilty without even hiring a lawyer, hoping the problem would quietly disappear.

When, as was inevitable, the press got hold of the story, his erstwhile supporters quickly distanced themselves -- and commissioned a poll to assess the political damage. His career in politics was over.

This man was not Idaho Sen. Larry Craig but Walter Jenkins, the aide Lyndon B. Johnson called "my vice president in charge of everything." Jenkins was arrested in October 1964 for having sex in the men's room of the Washington YMCA.

So much has changed for the better since Jenkins's day. But the story of Craig's encounter with a police officer in an airport bathroom underscores the continuing grip of homophobia on American society.

"I am not gay. I never have been gay," Craig proclaimed. And while it was hard -- after the police report, the guilty plea, the Idaho Statesman story -- to credit that assertion, it was easy to understand how important it was for the senator to maintain that position.

It may be safe to be gay on "Will & Grace." It's a lot less acceptable for people in public life.

When the story broke just a few weeks before the 1964 election, Johnson scarcely hesitated before instructing Abe Fortas to secure the resignation of Jenkins, his longest-serving aide.

"I don't think he can ever be saved from it, and I don't think I can be -- or the presidency can be -- if we have knowledge of it and don't act decisively and promptly," Johnson says.

The tapes of his calls reveal an agitated president so unfamiliar with gay people that he tells FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, "I swear I can't recognize them."

What Johnson can recognize is the political peril of having a gay man on his staff. "Every farmer in the country is upset about it," he says. "It could mean, as I told you, the ballgame." The New York Times editorialized that "there can be no place on the White House staff or in the upper echelons of government for a person of markedly deviant behavior."

Johnson could hardly have imagined that 43 years later Democratic presidential candidates would dutifully troop to a forum on gay issues. All of them support lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military; all back changing federal law to protect employees from being fired on the basis of their sexual orientation.

In the past five years, the Supreme Court has ruled that criminal laws against sodomy are unconstitutional, and five states have established the right of same-sex couples to marry or join in civil unions. A movie about gay cowboys won three Oscars. The vice president's openly lesbian daughter has a baby with her partner.

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.

marcusr@washpost.com

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