Casualties of the Larry Craig affair

September 3, 2007

The state of Idaho is a blessed place, free of graft, environmental degradation, official stupidity, injustice and greed. I know that, because the state’s principal newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, had enough time left over from covering those mainstays to assign a top reporter to spend five months and devote 300 interviews to determining whether its senior U.S. senator, 62-year-old Larry Craig, ever had sex with another man.

The inquiry was triggered by allegations made last fall by a blogger who likes to expose the homosexuality of privately gay politicians who take anti-gay positions. He said he’d spoken to several male consorts of Craig, a GOP family-values stalwart. The Statesman did nothing with the allegations then but assigned a reporter to check them out.

His investigation was nothing if not energetic, and included conversations with 41 fraternity brothers of Craig’s from his college days in the early 1960s. “The most serious finding … was the report by a professional man with close ties to Republican officials,” the paper concluded. “The 40-year-old man reported having oral sex with Craig at Washington’s Union Station, probably in 2004. … The Statesman also explored dozens of allegations that proved untrue, unclear or unverifiable.”

The newspaper published its non-findings last month, after news broke in Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., paper that covers Capitol Hill, that Craig had been arrested in June in a Minneapolis airport restroom for supposedly coming on to another man, an undercover cop. Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a charge he says he regrets not fighting in court, and faces pressure to resign.

I want to look beyond the restroom incident, which to me suggests recklessness and indifference to basic standards of public behavior that have clear bearing on Craig’s fitness to remain in the Senate.

Let’s talk instead about whether his sexuality, if it had remained private, was a legitimate target of media inquiry in the first place.

Three arguments are advanced: If Craig denied being privately gay he was lying publicly; if he took public positions that conflicted with his private sexuality he was a hypocrite; and if his supporters knew the truth they’d stop voting for him.

First, Craig has been dogged by rumors, which he has denied, that he’s gay or bisexual almost from the beginning of his 27-year congressional career. After his arrest the Statesman asked: “…Has he been lying, blatantly and repeatedly, to his constituents? Elected officials have a right to privacy, but also an obligation to tell the truth about who they are.”

Look at that last sentence, a model of illogic: It implies that officials have a right to keep private matters private until someone asks about them. Then they have a duty to tell all — hence no right to privacy.

I can’t argue for lying. But surely the obligation to be forthright has some relation to the subject matter. The moral weight we attach to a lie depends, in part, on its gravity and on whether we are entitled to the truth that’s being concealed. Lying is seldom right, but not all lies warrant the same condemnation.

But, the argument goes, this lie was egregious because Craig has hypocritically supported policies reviled by most gays. He voted against protecting sexual orientation under the federal hate crimes bill, wanted to ban gay marriage and voted to let states disallow same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere – all hot-button gay rights measures.

But wait, suppose he’d voted the gay line on all those measures? Why wouldn’t that be a strong reason to bring his private homosexuality to light? Then, it would be anti-gay activists who would want Craig outed in the interest of exposing the hidden determinants of his public positions. Either way, his privacy is shattered.

Hypocrisy, then, is a red herring.

Finally, as the Statesman’s editor said when she assigned a reporter to Craig: “Many of his supporters would not vote for him if they knew he was homosexual. … So I think it is an issue.”

That’s perhaps the most disturbing rationale. It suggests a total capitulation to popular fancy, no matter how ill-founded or bigoted, no matter how irrelevant to an official’s public duties. People are free to withhold their votes because of an official’s private orchid collection or fascination with medieval erotica. But that doesn’t justify journalists’ dignifying their whims by treating them as publicly valid criteria for decision.

The private sphere remains under unrelenting assault from government and industry, and it’s a pity when the news media line up to lead the charge – under the banner of public interest.

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