Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




August 31 , 2007

If the items on the Crooks and Liars progressive blog are a bellwether of what a good portion of the nation is thinking and talking about, then for a brief period this week, at least, the nation turned its eyes on United States Senator Larry Craig.

Mr. Craig, if you missed it—and hard to see how you could, if you opened a newspaper or turned on a news channel—is the Idaho Republican who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct following his arrest in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport men’s room for conduct considered consistent with a man trying to pick up another man to have sex. According to the news accounts, and the far-too-many graphic re-enactments provided by television stations, Mr. Craig sat in one toilet stall and engaged in various actions to try to attract the attention of the man sitting in the next stall to see if he was interested. The actions ranged from running his hand under the stall divider to moving his foot under the same divider to touch the other man’s foot.

Presumably, though in Mr. Craig’s case it never got that far, these were signals for the two men to join in one of the stalls.

On Wednesday night, Crooks and Liars led off with a parody on the Republican Party as the old flaming gay Village People group, writing that “the more one looks at the evidence that Craig seems to be gay, the more one can see that it is really just evidence of being conservative....When conservatives gush about how macho Fred Thompson and President Bush are, we do sound a little bit like Village People fans.” The blog then moved to a clip from a Keith Olbermann Countdown segment that read from the police report on the Craig arrest in a parody of the old “just the facts, ma’am” Dragnet television show, followed with a news clip of President George Bush’s reaction to the Craig situation, followed, some items down, with an entry called “James Sensenbrenner BBC’s ‘Little Britain’ channel’s Republican Larry Craig’s Bath Room Bust” which includes a clip which C&L says is “hilarious! Maybe Larry Craig should have used this defense,” followed by a CNN clip in which “CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin laid out a fantastic breakdown of Senator Larry Craig’s bizarre claims surrounding his bathroom sex scandal,” followed, an item or so down, by another clip from Countdown, with the tagline “On Countdown, Keith Olbermann talked with Air America Radio talk show host, Rachel Maddow about Republican Senator Larry Craig’s presser, Mitt Romney throwing him under the bus (along with former President Bill Clinton) the laundry list of Republican sex scandals and the glaring hypocrisy oozing from the Republican Party,” followed by...well, you get the picture.

Of the 24 items on C&L’s first page at 8:30 Wednesday night, 9 of them concerned Mr. Craig reflecting not so much a Crooks and Liars obsession as it does a sort of national bout of junior high schoolyard snickering. Larry got caught trying to cop a feely on another boy in the bathroom. No shit? Come with me to my locker and tell me everything!

The national furor escalated—if anyone could have thought that possible—at mid-afternoon on Thursday after national news stations began playing excerpts from the police interview tapes with Mr. Craig that were taken in the police station following the Senator’s arrest. By Thursday evening, commentator Chris Matthews was advertising a Hardball segment on whether the Craig incident would “derail the Republican Family Values agenda.”

But there is something about the Craig incident that disturbs me, deeply, and, no, it’s not the continued evidence of hypocrisy among some of our conservative Republican friends. Mr. Craig has been a consistent supporter of the Defense of Marriage laws that would deny marriage to gay couples (he has issued statements saying that “the appropriate definition of marriage is a union between one man and one woman”), and during the height of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, went on “Meet The Press” to announce that Mr. Clinton was “a bad boy, a naughty boy… probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.”

But that some of the people howling the loudest at the head of the mob are only trying to hide the fact that they are guilty of the same transgressions—in thought or deed—committed by the man whose house the mob is presently burning should come as no great surprise, and is merely one of the constants of the human experience.

What disturbs me is the way the Craig arrest, and subsequent guilty plea, and subsequent fall from grace, came about.

From all the available evidence, a plainclothes police sergeant was given the assignment of going into the men’s bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and sitting on the toilet, with his pants down to his ankles, waiting patiently for the man in the next stall to give some surreptitious signal that some form of sex is desired, and then arresting that man for doing so. Apparently the particular bathroom is a regular liaison spot, and local police arrested several men in the sting when they tried to similarly solicit an undercover cop in the adjoining stall.

What a sad and tawdry little job that must be, waiting in a bathroom stall for men to come on to you, and what a sad and tawdry little nation we are for participation in the resultant public flogging—either as progressive-liberals giggling in delight at another Republican toppled, or conservatives covering, so to speak, their asses while pointedly turning their backs on him.

Let us be clear on the nature of Mr. Craig’s admitted and observed transgressions.

This was not rape, or the taking advantage of an underage young male by some priest or coach or youth advisor or a middle age internet chatroom predator. It was a man entering a public airport bathroom that had a reputation as a meeting place for men attracted to men, and then enclosing himself in a stall and putting his briefcase—full of important, state papers, presumably—in front of the door to block any view, and then tapping out a code on the floor with his polished shoe in the hope that the anonymous man next door will find him in any way desirable, and want to spend with him a few moments pleasure or release.

What a horror of a life it must have been for Mr. Craig up until the moment the plainclothes officer flashed a badge instead of some other object under the stall wall, knowing there was always the danger that moment might come, knowing what an embarrassment to himself and to his family—now and for all time—that exposure of his actions would bring, knowing what his colleagues and his neighbors and the national press would most certainly say, but unable, with the weight of all that awful world in danger of falling upon him, to stop himself.

Mr. Craig, apparently, was not entrapped, and from the written police report, initiated most of the come-on himself. But that is not the point, is it? Do we want to live in a nation in which police are charged with waiting patiently for citizens to commit small legal transgressions, and then arrest them when they do?

And one has to, obviously, take into account the anti-gay aspect of this matter. No act of sex occurred in the airport bathroom, no exposure of any body parts the rest of us, presumably, might not want to see. Only a come-on. If Mr. Craig had come on to a woman in the newsstand at the same airport, smiling at her, winking at her, complimenting her on her choice of, um, magazines, and running his hand suggestively over the edge of his newspaper, to mimic running it over the edge of her blouse lapel, would any of us have known, or cared? Do the Minneapolis police assign undercover female officers to walk the airport shops, hoping to catch such men in the act? My God, the Minnesota courts would soon be full to the brim, if they did. And if, by chance, the woman in the newsstand found Mr. Craig somewhat attractive and safe, and took a drink with him in one of the airport bars, and decided to take a taxi with him to a nearby hotel for a couple of hours of anonymous sex, to get back on their planes and go their separate ways, how many of us would have cared? This would have been the case of cheating on his wife with another woman, and how many powerful men get caught cheating on their wives and continue in power, virtually unblemished and unscathed?

Senator Larry Craig's name will go down in national infamy. But quick, now, how many among us can remember the name of the United States Senator whose contact information was found in the client list of the D.C. madam? But then that case, after all, only involved the solicitation of prostitutes.

Yes, I know that more than hypocrisy, it is an abomination for a powerful office-holder—a United States Senator—to slip into bathroom stalls to have anonymous sexual encounters with other men, thereby breaking his own marriage vows, while simultaneously denying the right of gay and lesbian couples to have legally-sanctioned marriages in the midst of loving and monogamous relationships. On that score, I do not advocate that Mr. Craig be absolved of all guilt (although a “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” sort of Christianity might appear to be in order from the professed Christians amongst us). All that being said, for my progressive friends, nothing in the current junior high chatter over Mr. Craig’s peccadilloes moves us closer to any larger sexual acceptance and understanding that would lead to a more inclusive national definition of marriage, a goal that many, if not most, progressives say they are working towards. Quite the contrary. By progressives tittering on about toe-tapping in the toilet, as tempting as this may seem in the current political climate, I believe it moves us further away.

There are important matters to be discussed here. About sexuality. And tolerance. And temptation. About what types of relationships and activities stabilizes our society, and what types of relationships and activities breaks it apart. About what type of rules by which we wish to govern our own individual lives. About how much—or how little—we believe our own beliefs should be imparted to or imposed upon the guy in the next stall. Yes, I confess, I laughed, at first, with most of my friends when I first heard of Mr. Craig’s story. But as the laughter and the self-righteous speeches die down, before the moment dies and our thoughts turn elsewhere, let us hope that the talk can turn to a more serious social debate. The question is not so much what this will the Craig affair do to the Republican Family Values agenda, which always had a bit of a hollow core to it, but what will be our national values as a whole.