"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

On Wednesday, Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s disorderly conduct case will return to a Minnesota courtroom; there, he is attempting to withdraw his plea of guilty, and service of his sentence, on the charge. Within a few days after that, the Northwest’s senior senator (and its second most senior member of Congress) may – or may not – resign from the Senate. This the third of four essays considering the case, its causes and its effects.

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

You’ll see the question posted quite a bit, sometimes in the most unexpected place: What, exactly, was the offense here? What was it that Larry Craig did that was so horrifically wrong as to generate the kind of ferocious reaction, the nearly instant calls for resignation, that it has? And are they justified? What kind of response from Craig is warranted?

Don’t jump to a conclusion. This is more complicated than it seems, and not only because so many people – when you pin them down – give so many different answers. It’s because some of the answers may lie in the recesses of our souls, back in places few of us like to visit or even contemplate.

And some of the reasons have a good deal of validity, too.

One that makes no sense:

bullet Being convicted of a misdemeanor. There’s a reason you got your felonies and you got your misdemeanors: One is considerably more serious than the other, and one is taken as an indicator of a person really not to be trusted, while the other is simply a significant mistake. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell used Craig’s misdemeanor conviction in Minnesota as rationale for why he should resign from the Senate. This is a complete crock: By that standard, the nation’s president and vice president should be gone too. (Which many people might say should happen anyway, but not for that reason.) Get convicted of a felony, and you’re out of the Senate, all right, but lesser offenses aren’t, in and of themselves, quite so weighty.

bullet But he pleaded guilty to a crime. Under the law, pleading guilty to a crime and then being convicted is really no different than pleading not guilty and being convicted anyway: Either way, you are formally determined by the law of the land to be guilty. There seems to be considerable difference between the two in the minds of some people, though why exactly is less clear. Is it that the guilty plea more or less removes all doubt that he actually did it? Except, of course, that he now is denying it anyway.

There’s also a real question about the seriousness, though, of exactly what Craig did. If you point a gun at someone and demand their money, there’s no question what were the specific things you did that violated the law. But tapping a foot on the floor – what’s that? Is that a crime? Should it, could it be? What sort of innocent behavior might be snared into something like this? Who knows what’s criminal?

Some good questions here. The Minneapolis prosecutor’s office provided some clarity in their filings late last week responding to an American Civil Liberties Union filing in the case.

Prosecutor Christopher P. Renz: “The defendant invaded the sanctity of the officer’s bathroom stall, first by repeatedly staring into the stall, second by moving his foot over in a controlled and deliberate manner until it was on and touching the officer’s foot within the officer’s stall, and third by stroking his hand from front to back along the stall divider three times with increasingly greater amounts of the defendant’s hand being exposed on the officer’s side of the stall divider with each swipe. . . .The Metropolitan Airports Commission began its plain clothes detail of the men’s restroom at the airport on the heels of an incident in which a private citizen was seated in the stall, the individual next to him invaded the space of the adjacent tall and looked up under the stall divider. The victim was so upset that he waited for that defendant to come out of his stall and took him to a security checkpoint to call the police. This kind of conduct . . . angers and alarms people. It is hardly a stretch to understand that many peope attempting to use a public bathroom stall for the purposes for which it was intended, purposes which are personal and intimate to one’s hygeine and which require disrobing parts of one’s body generally considered private, and who experience this kind of conduct, would be prompted to fight or otherwise immediately breach the peace as to the offending individual.”

This, he argued, is disorderly conduct. We’d have to agree there’s a rational basis for that.

And: “In interviews of defendants arrested on similar charges, as well as reusltat reviews of websites, it is clear that sexual relations for which people had been communicating in the restroom were relations that occurred in the public restroom, not elsewhere. Therefore, the suggestion by the amici curiae that the defendant’s conduct was an invitation for private sex (which Defendant denies) and therefore cannot be criminalized is not only legally flawed but is at odds with the experience of the airport police officers in other cases involving similar conduct.”

You can never be sure what a judge will do, but we suspect the Minnesota judge will side with the prosecutor in Craig’s attempt to throw out his guilty plea, partly because of the explanations he offered here. And the ACLU’s argument that the state law is flawed seems worthy of our consideration (whether or not the court’s).

Still. Was there a real offense, something unmistakable for random behavior that just anyone – visiting a rest room for the conventional purposes – might engage in? We’d say so, that the prosecutor’s argument here is rational on both legal and common sense bases.

Assuming all that, is this cause for, say, expelling a senator from the Senate? No. It does not indicate corruption or inability to do the job, the normal kinds of reasons people should be bounced from public office.

bullet Trying to wiggle out. Craig’s defenders (they still exist) make the case that he is absolutely entitled to pursue what he sees as justice in the court system. Fair enough, as a matter of process. But does it make any sense, and should it be applauded? We’d turn thumbs down on both of those counts.

On the first: Craig’s standing in the legal system is far less important than his standing in the political, and before the public, and the disconnect between the legal and the public/political is almost absolute. Remember how O.J. Simpson was declared not guilty of murder in criminal court, and then consider how many people in America think he probably didn’t do it. If Craig does succeed in pulling his guilty plea, and if he then managed to escape an eventual guilty verdict at trial (which likely would follow, in the category of “be careful what you ask for”) – how many Americans, how many Idahoans, would think of a sudden that what happened in that bathroom was just a misunderstanding? The headlines, the calls for resignation, the jokes – none of what has happened in the last four weeks would or could be retracted. That ship has sailed. The public, and the political world, has made up its mind about Larry Craig. And that’s a lot more significant than the picayune fine-plus-probation supposedly at stake.

On the second: Craig may be underestimating the anger he has generated by heading back to court, undercutting his own political standing and robbing himself of any opportunity for sympathy. One Idaho Republican we talked to last week cited this – his attempt to wriggle out of something he’d already admitted to – as her particular point of anger at Craig. She’s probably not alone. And anyone interested in issues of hypocrisy might seize on the distinction between Craig’s general law-and-order policy record and this frantic effort, using some of the highest-paid crisis management hired guns in the country, to find technicalities for absolution.

The Lewiston Tribune this weekend points out that last Wednesday, shortly after his return to Washington, Craig voted for denying court appearances to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He voted – let’s put a point on this – to refuse even an appearance in court, in other words, to people who have been locked away thousands of miles from home for months and years despite being neither convicted nor even charged with any offense, at a time when Craig is demanding court hearings and action to throw out a guilty plea he willingly made after weeks of thought and consideration. We doubt much of the anger at Craig is being generated from any of this, but understandably some of it could be. A firing offense, though, or righteous cause for immediate dismissal? By itself, doubtful.

bullet Failing to level with . . . anybody. The Tribune‘s primary beef with Craig, and one that probably underlies some of the anger at him from his fellow Senate Republicans, is his silence on the arrest and conviction from the time the case began, until it was exposed in Roll Call.

That’s a justifiable complaint. Any public official who runs into trouble with the law – criminal or civil, whatever sort of offense it is – should immediately bring it public. Most professionals will tell you this is good PR crisis management practice anyway, since it;s a lot easier to shape the perception of an issue if one has control of the dissemination of facts from the beginning. (That was Craig’s best option, from the moment of his arrest, to escaping all this with a relative minimum of political damage.) It also is the right thing to do: If a public official is being seriously encumbered (as Craig was, in this case, by the criminal justice system) we all have a right to know about it. And there’s an ethical responsibility political people have to their political allies, to not toss them short-fuse bombs unaware.

It’s a fair criticism. A firing offense? Again, doubtful.

bullet Is he no smarter than this?, or, the poor judgment argument. It’s a Clinton/Lewinsky argument: If the guy is so stupid as to pull something like this, at any time but especially when he had to know he was being watched, how can he be trusted with important decisions . . . and how could he imagine an arrest or guilty plea like this would never get out? Should someone with such poor judgment be in the U.S. Senate?

What he did was stupid enough. But just as Bill Clinton, who also did a stupid thing, is not a stupid man, neither is Larry Craig – people who know him or have talked with him know better than that. We’ll assert it right here, from our observation of him over the years. (When will someone publish a book called “When Smart People Do Stupid Things”?) Most if not all senators probably have done stupid things of some kind over the course of their lives; most everyone has. Those who never have probably haven’t ventured very much. The big difference here is that Craig got caught, in a spectacular way. Doesn’t mean, in itself, that he is incapable of exercising judgment in the Senate.

bullet Ineffectiveness. Most of the newspaper editorials calling for Craig’s resignation from the Senate (especially those, like the Idaho Statesman, in Boise) focus on ineffectiveness – the argument that Craig inevitably will be swamped by the bathroom issue for the next year and odd months, and that he can’t do the job properly. He may be preoccupied by his case. Other senators won’t want to work with him. He has lost leadership roles on committees. And so on.

There’s something to this, certainly. Without doubt, Craig’s standing in the Senate has changed, has gone from a leading member of the Republican caucus to one only grudgingly allowed in the room at all. But the whole case isn’t that simple.

We’re not talking about five years left in the term – we’re talking about a little over a year. Craig retains a vote, in a closely divided Senate – valuable currency. He retains, for now, committee seats, also valuable currency. He retains Senate prerogatives such as the hold. And what he lost in personal standing with other senators he may have picked up in another way: National celebrity. That’s been a negative trade so far, of course. But suppose that after this week he closes out his legal case, and decides that he’s going to focus on the Senate and on issues of concern to him (maybe some new ones). He could generate more headlines for them than he could possibly have done before.

And he’s already been back to Washington, already looked into those angry faces: In some ways, the worst is over. Watching a movie channel a couple of nights back we were reminded of a quote from Alfred Hitchcock to the effect that terror comes not from the firing of a gun, but from the suspense of waiting for it to go off. For Craig, the gun already has been fired. The rest is aftermath; the horror already has been unleashed; he’s in the anticlimax. Now that the crisis is behind him, why leave?

He may, of course – probably will. But time is suggesting that the ineffectiveness argument isn’t enough, either, to ethically mandate a resignation.

bullet But what about all of these things taken together? Add it all up: The conviction, the hiding, the wriggling out, the foolishness, the hypocrisy, the loss of Senate status – take it together, and is this enough to say, “Larry, you gotta go”?

Maybe. This is a deep gray area, because while we’d argue that no one of these is enough by itself, there’s a fair case for saying that in all, they do. It teeters on the edge.

We also think this: That none of these things, or even all of them taken together, account for the reaction the Craig case has generated – the immediate calls for resignation, the ferocious dismissal from allies of decades’ standing, the endless and mind-wrenching jokes, the mass attention and the fury. Especially the fury.

The only accounter we can conceive of for that, for the emotional response, is that what we’re talking about here, the subject matter – the res, as lawyers would say – is gay sex.

That’s what no one seems to want to admit, and what gets regularly denied: “It’s not that he’s gay, I don’t care about that, that doesn’t matter”. So they say. So almost everyone says. But think about this: Suppose Craig were caught in a misdemeanor offense, pleaded guilty, was found out weeks later – but the offense was something else? What would have been the public reaction then? Would there be calls for his resignation? Would he be a fixture on late-night talk shows, would people in Japan and South Africa know who Larry Craig was? Is that, at base, why so many people want Craig gone, immediately, now?

Questions for wider pondering, in front of the mirror.

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Clark plan

Clark plan

Traveling around Clark County weekend before last we were struck again by the wild growth in unincorporated suburbia – subdivisions all the way from the old riverfront of Vancouver to the outskirts of Battle Ground and La Center. It’s visual confirmation of the census and other numbers: Clark County has been growing fast. And the governmental and political backdrop for all this has been the war over planning between the city of Vancouver (which wants massive annexation) and the county government (which would rather not).

Some of this will probably inevitably fall into place over time. For now, there seems to be the root of a compromise between the two governments. Maybe. Tomorrow morning, Clark County will consider adopting a revised land management plan, developed in part with city officials – there are elements of compromise. But city officials are not necessarily convinced; there is some talk of suing to overturn.

We may be coming toward a turning point – things are pressing into collision, or cooperation.

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There’s been some perplexed talk among Idaho Republicans about a string of decisions and initiatives on the part of Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter , a man long known as a lower-case libertarian – a person strongly disinclined to have government to anything that a private person or entity prospectively could do. And to oppose, as a general principle, anything like an expansion of government.

So what to make of many of Otter’s recent decisions? There’s the support for a new Ada-Canyon community college. Support for pursuing some kind of medical school for the state, prospectively a big investment. Support for public transportation initiatives. And some of these things quietly done.

Now comes the report that Otter is setting up a state Office of Energy Resources. Which may only add to libertarian wonderment . . .

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On Wednesday, Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s disorderly conduct case will return to a Minnesota courtroom; there, he is attempting to withdraw his plea of guilty, and service of his sentence, on the charge. Within a few days after that, the Northwest’s senior senator (and its second most senior member of Congress) may – or may not – resign from the Senate. This the second of four essays considering the case, its causes and its effects.

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

We’ve spoken over the years from time to time with Roll Call, the newspaper which covers Capitol Hill, about Northwest politics and politicians – members of Congress and their doings are Roll Call‘s subject matter. Vastly less well known than the Washington Post, it is much more focused, closer to – but still less known than – the Congressional Quarterly, but more immediate in its reports. it may be closest in feel to The Hill, also a newspaper focusing on Congress.

All of these publications are professional, solid and serious. They are not supermarket tabloids, and none of them are where you ordinarily would expect to see an expose about bathroom sex. Yet there it was, on August 27 – Roll Call breaking the political story of the week (month? season?). When it did, it did so not the way some others might: It arrived with police and court reports in hand. This was a story about a senator’s run-in with the law, a run-in hidden from view for more than two months.

But the intersecting subjects of Idaho Senator Larry Craig, gay sex and news reporting has a long and varied history, fit for consideration in college journalism schools coast to coast. (College preferably, since some of the details probably are R-rated.) Eventually, and maybe not too far off, we’ll all see lots of hand-wringing by the usual hand-wringers about how the Craig story was handled over the years, then days and hours after it hit. While events still are fresh, let’s check off a report card on the rights and wrongs.

bullet Pre-2006 non-reporting by Idaho media: Right. This could come off as self-serving – since your scribe, an Idaho newspaper reporter and editor from 1976 to 1990, is among those covered by this first category. Nevertheless: The corps of Idaho news reporters in the three decades before 2006, who were well aware of the rumors about Craig, were right to pass on the story. Part of the reason was simply the common standard of the time, that the public had good reason to know whatever public officials do that affects the public, but not what they did in private – unless you could draw a short and direct line from the private activity to the public. And most of the time, such cases involved business or legal conflicts of interest, not private sexual activity.

This wasn’t squeamishness – some of the reporters certainly would not have minded going after the private lives of some politicians. (Your scribe recalls once an interview with a congressional candidate, well known in reporting circles for his extramarital activities; a question that included only a subtle and glancing reference to them drained the blood from his face.) It was also a recognition of some barrier between public and private. It provided some rationale and reason for why news reports are or should be worth reading: They are or ought to be of general public, not private, use. It also grew out of recognition that some limits, even if self-imposed, are needed so that First Amendment protected speech doesn’t degenerate into . . . what we see at the supermarket checkout. At least on the part of news organizations that try to bear the public interest in mind, in what they do.

Nor was that all. Craig’s private life (along with other political private lives) may have wandered into the rumor mill, but one reason it never went further was that there was no evidence, nothing to turn rumor into established fact. Or even into a case that could be established beyond some reasonable doubt.

One argument, and it went back to at least the late 70s in media circles, echoed something from more recent years: The hypocrisy argument. Craig presented himself as a family man, a backer of family and sexual traditions in opposition to gay rights arguments and legislation. We’ll revisit this point in another essay, but for now we should note something about Craig that moderated our take on this. Craig aligned himself with the political right and with social conservatives, but as a conservative he was focused on business, regulation and finance, and the bedroom issues were not a focus in his campaigns, speechmaking or legislating. He is not a Rick Santorum or Sam Brownback; his manner might seem arch, but he didn’t specialize in holier than thou talk. He didn’t invite the scrutiny into his private life through his public statements. That may be hard to belief after all the recent media short-handing of Craig and his Senate career, but it’s nonetheless true.

bullet The Blogger of Fall: Wrong. Last October, the Craig rumors went public when Mike Rogers, a blogger at www.blogactive.com, reported on that site and later on the Ed Schultz radio program he was “100 percent solid” Craig had engaged in gay sex, and that he had first-person confirmation from partners. Some previous Rogers outings were later confirmed as accurate: He had a track record.

Our reaction was two-fold, and it grew out of the points guiding most media coverage in years past. First, Rogers offered no connection between what he described as Craig’s private life and his public responsibilities: This was a simple outing, of a private life, without any indication of how the public had a stake. Second, he offered no evidence – only allegations. He said he had talked with people who knew, personally, but he did not offer up any names. He offered no possibility for corroboration or double-checking. We noticed the report (which did, after all, echo from years before), but were left unimpressed.

bullet Reporting on the Blogger: Right. The Rogers report created a difficulty for news media in Idaho (and regionally, and including this site): How to deal with it? Our take on it was quick, and paralleled that of several Idaho news organizations. To completely ignore a report broadcast nationally and into Idaho (as it was through the Schultz program) would amount to unwillingness to acknowledge a political thunderclap that had in fact occurred. The initial report may have been deeply flawed, but it was there, it had entered the political environment, and had affected it. It had to be given what a court might call “cognizance”: The bell had been rung, and couldn’t be unrung.

So this site concluded, and ran a short blog item noting the report and also Craig’s quick denial of its allegations; and a statement that we wouldn’t revisit the subject at least until some actual evidence had been proffered. That was similar to the approach taken by some newspapers in the area, including those at Spokane, Pocatello and Lewiston: A short acknowledgment of the report, together with the Craig denial. It was an imperfect solution but, we think in hindsight, the best available.

bullet The Statesman’s Blog Response: Wrong. The Idaho Statesman at Boise took a different approach, wrong in two ways.

First, head-in-sand: Recognition that the Rogers story was short on evidence but no recognition that a great many Statesman readers quickly learned about it, though not from their daily newspaper. In a poorly-reasoned attempt to (apparently) be fair to Craig, the Statesman‘s editors decided to run nothing, obviously including not running Craig’s denial, which means that many Statesman readers heard about the evidence-less allegations from Rogers but not the senator’s response. The silence from the paper was so striking that it eventually drew inquiry from around the industry.

The Statesman‘s eventual response: Try to determine for itself, as conclusively as possible, whether Rogers’ allegation about Craig gay sex activities was true or not. One e-mail to a national gay publication described it as “our significant effort to be thorough and comprehensive and determine the truth before we report.” http://www.pridedepot.com/modules/wordpress/?p=967

We take conceptual issue with this. What was ordered up was an investigation into a person’s private life, without any particular conception that any public interest – other than base curiousity – was involved. The investigation was centered on the question of whether Craig was gay or not. And as we’ve seen in some quarters (including from at least one editor at the Spokane Spokesman-Review, in a comment now deleted) there’s some real and legitimate concern about what may happen when news media decide that investigations into private lives, in and of themselves, are fair game. How many people would feel safe? What does it do to the concept of public interest in the news media? What are the barriers, what are the lines? What can ever be private? A lot of people normally accustomed to support for news organizations and their efforts (such as those manning this site) are likely to be deeply concerned about this conceptual approach.

(Not to mention the obvious news judgment question, even if you throw out all the foregoing: Is an inquiry into the private sex life of an elected official really a useful way to spend more than six months of a reporter’s time?)

bullet Deep Research: Right. If you’re going to do a job, do it right, and this they did: The research into Craig’s life – albeit launched on poor premises – by reporter and columnist Dan Popkey, was exemplary. It hit all the appropriate professional marks, made every stop we could think of and some we wouldn’t have thought of. Popkey estimated he talked with around 300 people; we don’t doubt it.

It was so extensive an investigation that it was no secret at all. We heard it was underway sometime back in the holiday season last year. We had no intent or interest in tracking its progress, and made no attempt to, but in the ordinary course of talking to political and politically-connected people around Idaho, we wound up inadvertently (unavoidably) following its progress in some detail. We talked with a number of the people Popkey talked with, who told us the sense of their interviews. Various written reports from Washington, Boise and elsewhere confirmed progress in various locations. Assigned to find out the truth of Larry Craig’s sex life, Popkey did about as thorough a job as seems imaginable, and took it to a professional appropriate confrontation interview (with other Statesman personnel present) with Craig. The end result: Inconclusive, clear proof one way or the other still elusive.

bullet The Withholding: Wrong. On one level, you have to give credit. Most newspapers which put such massive resources into a single investigation feel duty-bound to report, to issue something showing what they did find (even if only to justify externally the use of resources). The Statesman‘s editors decided that the investigation, while turning up some interesting material, was ultimately inconclusive, and therefore decided not to run a story from it. They were right about the inconclusiveness, and in many other cases would have been right to make that hard decision not to publish. This time, they were wrong.

They were wrong for many of the same reasons they were wrong the previous fall. So extensive was Popkey’s investigation that his direct work had the virtual effect of publication. The hundreds of people he talked to talked in turn to hundreds or (more likely) thousands more. Craig himself remarked that after the first couple of months or so, he could hardly talk to anyone in Idaho who hadn’t been aware of or experienced directly the Statesman‘s inquiry into whether Craig was gay. The sheer size of the investigation had the effect of taking the whole issue public, in every way except on the Statesman‘s printed pages.

Certainly it was public elsewhere. Blogs wrote about it, of course, but so did the Boise Weekly, other national publications, gay publications and more. In this day of Google, a search for something like “Larry Craig gay” would have turned up a batch of hits by early summer from a wide range of sources, more of them generated from Popkey’s work than from Roger’s original blast. The story was public already; the Statesman simply refused to acknowledge it. And by – in that backhanded way – stoking the rumor mill, any opportunity Craig had to tell his side was denied, for a second time.

Given that the investigation was inconclusive, how might it have been reasonably handled? Could have been run in a regular Popkey column, in which he wrote – in abridged form – about the direction and scope of the investigation, what it involved, how it failed to determine positively what it set out to, and what Craig said in response. A perfect answer to a difficult situation? Of course not. But it would at least have offered some facts instead of rumor, and would have been fairer to both readers and to Craig.

bullet The Roll Call report: Right. As suggested at the top: The Washington newspaper Roll Call was right to report Craig’s Minneapolis run-in with the law. Hardly any of the concerns applying up to this point applied once that happened. Any time a senator bumps heads with the law, down to and including a speeding ticket, that’s news, even if only a short blurb. No rumor or speculation was involved, only a police report and a guilty plea.

bullet The Circus: Wrong. Yeah, yeah, there’s been no lack of entertainment out of all this, a good deal of it brought on by the senator himself. But at what point does it overwhelm compassion or humanity? Or even common sense?

We may have passed that point, some time ago . . .

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Not long after our first post on Washington Representative Brian Baird‘s August 27 town hall meeting at Vancouver, we fielded a comment from a reader questioning whether the local response there – to Baird’s urging for more time for the troops in Iraq – was as harsh as we portrayed it. (We weren’t clear in reading it whether that person had attended or not.)

We definitely think it was. Today, we saw an item in the Olympian, about a Biard town hall at Capitol High School at Olympia on Friday, that sounds like a rerun of Vancouver.

The Brad Shannon article started: “It started with a few chants of ‘bring them home.’ And for most of the next four hours, U.S. Rep. Brian Baird did what he could to explain to a sometimes-boisterous crowd why he favors keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for a longer term. . . . Several people in the crowd of more than 200 at a town hall meeting at Capital High School said they had supported Baird but probably won’t in the future. And they weren’t convinced Baird had outlined a valid, continuing U.S. interest in Iraq.”

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Ararity – an advertising campaign that’s fun to explore, from Pemco Insurance. The ad campaign is “We’re a lot like you. A little different.” And adds, “Because around here the skies are sometimes gray but the people are colorful.”

Worth a look. Hat tip to the Tacoma News Tribune‘s editorial page blog.

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On Wednesday, Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s disorderly conduct case will return to a Minnesota courtroom; there, he is attempting to withdraw his plea of guilty, and service of his sentence, on the charge. Within a few days after that, the Northwest’s senior senator (and its second most senior member of Congress) may – or may not – resign from the Senate. This the first of four essays considering the case, its causes and its effects.

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

It would be an early, and easy, response on the part of many Idahoans that it’s just an oddity, a fluke, that the now-infamous Larry Craig came from Idaho. His arrest happened a thousand miles away. He could have come from anywhere, right? Idaho itself had nothing to do with it, you dig – it was just the state that happened to get caught up in something that happened far away . . .

Or not. Maybe it’s no coincidence that al this happened of and to a guy from Idaho – maybe there’s reason it happened the way it did, and that Idaho may have something to do with it. Maybe politics, Idaho politics, had something to do with it. Maybe there’s something here beyond the scandal as such that a Northwest blog like this really ought to address.

Our recollections of Larry Craig go back to the Idaho State Senate in the 70s, a time when the two major political parties were a lot more similar than they are today, when the philosophical lines blurred, when Democrats on the right and Republicans on the left often crossed over in their voting, when a number of senators around the chamber were considered unpredictable votes, near-free agents, willing to come up with their own ideas and operate accordingly. Caucus loyalty was there, but less enforced than today. It was a different time.

Craig was one of the mavericks. The reporters and lobbyists knew him as an interesting thinker, no routine spouter of caucus rhetoric but someone who worked out his own positions. (We’ve heard a story, unconfirmed but from an excellent source, about a day back in the 70s when Idaho’s top labor organizer visited Craig to deliver a substantial campaign contribution – which Craig, aware the political realities involved, declined to accept.) He also articulated them well – one of the youngest senators, he was one of the best speakers in the chamber, his voice sounding eerily at times like that of the similarly-skilled Democratic Senator Frank Church. Craig’s Republican credentials were in order, but his independent streak surely played into his two losses for leadership position, for majority leader, both times to a senator elected the same year (1974) he was, and was much more a strict conservative caucus loyalist: Jim Risch (who may become the next senator from Idaho). There were Statehouse rumors back then that Craig might be gay, most people around the building heard the talk, but nothing concrete was developed and nothing much was ever made of it.

Then Craig changed.

In 1980 he filed for the U.S. House, for the seat being vacated by Republican Steve Symms, who would go on to beat Church in the state’s high-profile contest that year. Symms was by background a libertarian in philosophy, but over the years he became a Republican caucus conservative, rarely breaking with Republican party leaders, and very much in line with the developing presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Upon announcing for the House, Craig served immediate notice – startling many of those who had watched him up to then – that he would follow directly in Symms’ steps.

And he did. His big issue became, and would for many years remain, a balanced federal budget (on which subject he championed a constitutional amendment), and he lined up hard and fast with the resource industries that supported Reagan and the Sagebrush Rebellion. The positioning he assumed then has defined him, as a matter of political philosophy, voting patterns and legislation, in unwavering fashion, ever since.

A matter of conscience or political convenience? Only Craig truly knows.

We can fairly say, though, that Craig profited politically from it.

He entered that 1980 Republican primary as an underdog, against former Attorney General Wayne Kidwell. Kidwell’s campaign was poor (as he has since acknowledged), but Craig was able to ride, in primary and general elections that year, along the political grooves by then deeply worn by Symms and his predecessor, James McClure: A base of supporters, contributors and voters which constituted a reliable and almost unshakable working majority, first in the district and later (as he ran for the Senate) statewide. Craig became one of the conservative Republican crew, easily defined and understood by conservative Idaho voters. Mavericks have lots of ‘splainin’ to do to voters; from 1980 on, Craig never had much to worry about that. Less government, lower taxes, keep government off your backs, oppose gun control and support Reagan: What else did anyone need to know? And particularly as Idaho Republicans hit their sweeping stride in the mid-90s, Craig’s political armor became exceedingly difficult to crack. He never developed the kind of intensely likable persona some politicians (such as Idaho’s current governor, C.L “Butch” Otter) have. But he stuck with those who brought him along, and they stuck with him.

Craig has not been an inactive or inconsequential senator, but you’ll have to search hard to find anything in his federal record that runs counter to the terms under which he was elected in 1980 or since: The consistency has been solid. Only with true rarity (apart from the normal constituent defenses of Idaho interests) has he bolted from the majority Republican position, or from Republican presidential administrations. (The most striking example that comes to mind is Craig’s criticism of, and efforts to reform, the Patriot Act; we can’t think of another nearly as significant. Craig’s role on the immigration issue, which surely is highly contentious, doesn’t count; the Republican Party is split on it, and Craig has largely lined up with the current Republican president.)

As political careers go, Craig’s has been a smooth ride. He has not been an electoral underdog since that 1980 primary. He has never had a truly close call since, or even a really competitive election since 1982 (when he was held to 54% by Democrat Larry LaRocco, who – that’s right – is running again for the Senate in Idaho now). His last re-election, in 2002, was a landslide. Nor were any of these races, aside from closeness, really contentious. Most were cool matters, aloof with discussions of philosophy and the like. When Craig remarked, as he did in an interview last May with the Idaho Statesman, that he’s never gone harshly negative on an opponent, he is right. It’s also true that none of his challengers really whaled hard on him. Over his decades in Washington, he saw at close range plenty of scandal and controversy, but little of it ever touched him.

Once, it came close.

In 1982, scandal erupted in the U.S House on reports that several male pages, high school students, had been sexually propositioned by congressmen. Craig wasn’t, and never has been, among the congressmen accused; but unlike other members of Congress, he reacted publicly by declaring that he wasn’t guilty. That raised immediate eyebrows. As a matter of politics, it was a foolish move: Even if he had nothing to do with the page scandal, it suggested that Craig might be hiding something. Craig himself acknowledged later that he’s made a mistake. Why had he, alone among the 435 members of the U.S. House, made that mistake? He had panicked. Crisis had arisen and, in the pressure of the moment, he had lost the ability to deal with it rationally.

Coping with crisis – of various sorts – seems to be mostly a learned ability, developed through experience. A soldier in an ongoing battle situation doubtless deals with action under fire better the fourth or fifth time than on the first or second. A politician under fire, whether because of an issue or because of party identification or something else, develops seasoning, a thicker skin, and greater coolness under fire.

In the political world of Idaho, Larry Craig rarely experienced any serious career-threatening fire. For a quarter-century after that 1982 page incident, Craig was of the right party and philosophy and voting pattern to keep him where he wanted to be. There was no fire from Idaho: He had easily ascended the ranks, and the steps needed to defend his place were no more than ministerial. Would a Democrat from Idaho have responded as Craig did? Probably not. Or a Republican, we suspect, from Washington or Oregon – places where Republicans have to bear in mind that the opposition is real and serious and will strike hard on sensing weakness.

Some of the origins of the Larry Craig story, as we’ve known it for the last month, do seem political.

Not all. Of course not all – his personal life, whatever the full story there may be, obvious mattered a great deal in how the airport incident and its aftermath have played out. Because we suspect, strongly, that had Craig handled the situation differently from the moment of his arrest, his political positioning now might be stronger than it is.

If Larry Craig had happened to come to the Senate from another state, maybe this thing would have played out otherwise.

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Jane Hague

Jane Hague

This is trouble, of the sort that has done damage to others before: The claiming of an adornment to one’s record that doesn’t actually exist. If you’re running for office in Washington, and you formally claim it, it can be worse.

When Jane Hague (who nearly ran for the U.S. House a couple of years back, and was reckoned to be a strong contender) ran for the King County Council in 1993 – she was elected – she B.S., Business and Economics, W. MI Univ. (Western Michigan University). In fact, though she attended there from 1964 to 1968, she never graduated.

The Seattle Times reported all this on its front page today. And said, “Hague was asked multiple times this week, by phone, e-mail and in person, to explain the discrepancy. She declined to do so. Several publications, including The Seattle Times, Marquis Who’s Who, the Municipal League and the National Association of Counties, published profiles between 1991 and 2000 that stated Hague had earned a bachelor’s degree.”

She is up for election this year, and until recently she’s been highly likely to win. She’s had a strong enough record on the council to be considered a realistic possibility for higher office, Congress and otherwise. Her Democratic opponent this year is Bellevue lawyer Richard Pope, a flukish situation – a perenniel (10 times) candidate who has run more often as a Republican than as a Democrat and has gotten little support from his party.

But then came June 2, when not only was she arrested for driving under the influence, but took after police with what she acknowledged was “rude and abusive behavior.”

Now the bio reports (see also the reporting on Horse’s Ass) are complicating her situation considerably. Whether enough to cause to lose to Pope is so far uncertain. But you can sense the tone in the quote from former Republican legislator Toby Nixon, who started by loyally saying, “I completely expect Jane to get re-elected,” then adding pragmatically, “Maybe it won’t be as huge a margin as it otherwise would have been.”

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Sam Adams

Sam Adams

You’d be well within reason saying that this is awfully early to start handicapping the Portland mayoral race, especially since no one seems to have announced candidacy yet.

Maybe not too early, though, to take an initial run at it – one suggesting that City Council member Sam Adams is strongly positioned to take over when a new mayor is installed at the beginning of 2009. Thing is, opponents are falling by the wayside before the announcing even begins.

Not that Adams has announced, or even been notably visible since Tom Potter said he won’t run again, opening the office for next year and presumably firing up interest. (After all, candidates last time totaled 23.) Adams is only presumed intending to run, though the presumption looks solid.

This is a little remarkable, because Adams’ actual electoral record isn’t spectacular. He’s run for and won office (on the Portland city council) once, in 2004; there, Nick Fish (now a TV talk show host) beat him 47.7% to 37.1% in the primary, opening a lead that at first looked like too much ground for Adams to make up; running very strong that fall and helped by a string of endorsement, Adams bounced back in November, winning 51.4% to 48.6% – a win, sure enough, but hardly the makings of a political titan. He had been a mayoral chief of staff – centrally involved in city hall but not the front guy – for 11 years (after a decade in other jobs in the building); his issues expertise was unquestioned, but his role as a political personal leader of people was.

No longer. He’s developed into maybe the most charismatic of Portland political figures, a powerful speaker (we watched that at his speech Monday endorsing Democrat Jeff Merkley for the Senate), even an entertainer. You get the sense that today, he could out-campaign just about any other candidate for Portland office. From an excellent recent Oregonian profile: “As a city commissioner, Adams has become the leading voice for transparent government and an enthusiastic publicity hound. He invited a TV crew to film his surgery, brought cameras along as he manned a Burgerville drive-through and strutted the stage in a local charity version of ‘Dancing With the Stars.'”

There may be quite a few next year, but this week the number of prospects seemed to drop.

One of the best prospects was a businessman, Roy Jay, a leader in the city’s black business community and in other ways; he’s an untested candidate, but the prospect of a Jay candidacy drew praise from both left and right. He will remain untested for a little longer, though. Not long ago he had moved to a new house and only recently discovered it was just outside of Portland city limits, barring him from a mayoral run (this time, at least).

Then there’s Bob Ball, a major-league developer in the high-end Pearl District, also interested in running for mayor.

Some weeks ago, Ball started conversing, quietly, with other political figures in the city, about what he suggested might be a case of child abuse – by Adams, who is gay, and openly, as is Ball. Adams acknowledged that he has had a mentoring relationship with a 17-year-old boy who was dealing with coming out of the closet; they and others of their acquaintance, however, have sharply denied anything improper was going on, said that none of it was secret, and Adams has said that he’d do nothing different in hindsight.

The quick and open response seems to have turned the issue around, and soon turned into the “smear campaign” against him – by Ball. The Oregonian wrote, “Gay on gay political smearing?” – and the story began going national. By which point the backfire began roaring in on Ball, including an editorial (which included a cautionary note or two as well for Adams) in Thursday’s Oregonian.

Two down, looks like. Next?

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Is there any way – we’ve not found one, but maybe exists – to track changes in Oregon party affiliation? Would be highly interesting to track.

As it is, we just have case by case. An intriguing one today in the Eugene Register Guard, which notes that one of the top Republican state Senate candidates of 2006 – former Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey – recently has changed party affiliation from Republican to Independent (as in, the Independent Party of Oregon, the one under whose banner John Frohnmayer is running for the U.S. Senate).

Torrey said he has no plans to run statewide for any office.

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Some people will never believe it, but we long have thought that spending too heavily – which so often is spending wastefully or worse – can be as politically damaging as spending much too little. (Paging Ron Saxton . . .)

Consider this from the Oregon Measure 50 (tobacco tax/health spending) advocates Healthy Kids Oregon: “Big Tobacco is headed toward setting a spending record in Oregon. R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris have already spent $4.5 million on television and radio, potentially the largest media buy in the history of the state of Oregon for a ballot measure.” (Hat tip on this to Blue Oregon)

Two corporations spending – so far, with plenty of time to go – $4.5 million on a single state ballot issue in Oregon? Doesn’t that massively break all kinds of records?

Is there much way this won’t, to some extent at least, backfire?

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Those who know the veteran Idaho social conservative will recheck their calendars to see if this is April 1. But no: Dennis Mansfield has some more-than-kind things to say on his blog about the former Democratic president.

Those have to do with an article in the current Atlantic magazine, “This is not charity,” describing how the Clinton Foundation is working with for-profit businesses to help accomplish larger social purposes (against AIDS and global warming, for two). This actually meshes with Mansfield’s ongoing work in rehabilitation of ex-convicts, and related activities.

Mansfield writes: “At New Hope we call it “Social Entrepreneurism”. Apparently the concept is starting to take on a following across the nation – GOP and Dems, conservatives and liberals. Gee, should I say it … Dennis Mansfield and Bill Clinton? Yep. I want to see what works … and then implement that type of solution.”

Both the magazine article (which, we should note, we had suggested to Mansfield’s attention) and Mansfield’s post are highly recommended reading.

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