Indiscretion that became a crisis: the Senator who put one foot wrong

Larry Craig was the most respectable of Republicans, but a small misjudgement in a public lavatory has provoked a huge furore in his party. Leonard Doyle reports from Washington
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The Independent US

Anyone using the "restroom" facilities at a US airport or train station would be well advised not to tap their foot while sitting on the lavatory as it is liable to lead to their arrest and subsequent public disgrace.

The career of Senator Larry Craig, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative from Idaho, is now in freefall thanks to a proclivity for foot tapping displayed at Minneapolis-St Paul International airport on 11 June last year.

Up until that point Idaho's second-longest-serving member of Congress and a Republican party elder statesman was cruising towards a fourth term. However poorly the ruling party was doing in the opinion polls and the presidential race, the staunchly conservative voters of Idaho appreciated Senator Craig's work in defending the farm state's interests in faraway Washington DC.

Born on a ranch that was 24 miles from the nearest paved road and educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Senator Craig is steeped in the ways of the rugged Rocky Mountain state. He built his career on a platform of morality and family values and as his critics now unfailingly point out, was a keen supporter of constitutional amendments and state laws banning same-sex marriage.

Then last Tuesday an obscure political newspaper called Roll Call reported that Senator Craig had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour following a foot-tapping incident at Minnesota airport lavatory. An undercover policeman sitting next door to him said the senator had solicited sex through foot signals and by swiping his hand underneath the partition wall.

The incident began with the senator peering several times through a crack in the door of the cubicle used by the undercover officer. The senator then reportedly entered the stall to the left and "placed his roller bag against the front of the stall door", a move the police report said was intended to block the view from the front of the public toilet.

The police report said that as soon as he was seated, Mr Craig began tapping his right foot. This, a fascinated American public is learning, is a "universal signal used by people wishing to engage in lewd conduct".

Once the officer moved his own foot up and down, Mr Craig touched the side of the policeman's left foot in the gap under the partition. The unfortunate senator also reportedly moved his hand under the stall wall several times before getting the shock of his life when the officer put his police identification by the floor so that he could see it.

The senator was arrested but he denied any sexual intent. It was two months later that he delivered a guilty plea to the charge of disorderly conduct and was given a suspended 10-day jail sentence and put on unsupervised probation for a year.

Mr Craig must have thought that would be the end of it, and he never told his wife about the airport incident, or his lawyer. Two weeks later Roll Call published its story, propelling the senator's momentary foolishness (in which there was no sexual contact,) on to the nation's front pages with headlines like "Bathroom Bust".

The reaction in his home state was one of disbelief. Dan Popkey, a reporter with the Idaho Statesman who has been investigating rumours that the anti-gay rights senator had been engaging in gay sexual encounters in public places, took a walk around the old Craig ranch with a couple who have known him since he was a child.As they showed him around, "they were weeping at the prospect that he might not be telling the truth", related Mr Popkey.

When the story of the senator's foot-tapping episode broke on Tuesday, the Idaho Statesman rushed into print with its own investigation. A conservative, even staid publication, it had been holding off in the absence of proof against the senator. Its investigation added to the senator's troubles with fresh allegations that "a professional man with close ties to Republican officials reported having oral sex with Mr Craig at Washington's Union Station".

Mr Craig's attempt to deny the misdemeanour to which he had already pleaded guilty and his condemnation of the newspaper's investigation only made matters worse. This week he appeared with his wife Suzanne for an impromptu press conference at the Idaho state capitol of Boise.

"I am not gay, I have never been gay," he protested. Mr Craig, who is 62, apologised deeply for the "cloud placed over Idaho" by the foot-tapping incident and said his deepest regret was that he pleaded guilty when in fact he had done nothing wrong.

"That was a mistake and I deeply regret it," he said while letting it be known that he was still thinking of running for re-election next year.

At another time, he might have been given the benefit of the doubt. After all, a number of high-ranking Republicans, Newt Gingrich is one, have had their extramarital affairs exposed in the press and have weathered the subsequent storm. But these are not ordinary times, especially for the Republicans, for whom the presidency of George Bush is proving to be an unmitigated disaster at the opinion polls.

The last thing the Republicans needed was a sex scandal involving yet another senator. If the nation's newspapers and television news channels reported the affair in a relatively po-faced way, the late-night comic television shows had a field day poking fun at the gross hypocrisy of the ruling party.

Within hours of the senator's attempts to brazen things out, the heavens opened. One of the first to criticise him was the Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who called Mr Craig's conduct "disgusting", as well as "disappointing and disgraceful".

Mr Craig who had been running the Romney presidential campaign in Idaho was immediately dumped. "Once again, we've found people in Washington have not lived up to the level of respect and dignity that we would expect for somebody that gets elected to a position of high influence," Mr Romney said. "Very disappointing. He's no longer associated with my campaign, as you can imagine."

Driving the knife home on CNN television, he compared Mr Craig's behaviour to President Bill Clinton's encounter with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky and that of a Republican congressman, Mark Foley, who resigned after another gay scandal involving male Congressional pages.

"Yeah, I think it reminds us of Mark Foley and Bill Clinton. I think it reminds us of the fact that people who are elected to public office continue to disappoint, and they somehow think that if they vote the right way on issues of significance or they can speak a good game, that we'll just forgive and forget," he said. "And the truth of the matter is, the most important thing we expect from an elected official is a level of dignity and character that we can point to for our kids and our grandkids, and say, 'Hey, someday I hope you grow up and you're someone like that person.' And we've seen disappointment in the White House, we've seen it in the Senate, we've seen it in Congress. And frankly, it's disgusting."

The bile from Mr Romney towards his political soul mate was hard to take for many. Not long ago Mr Romney's right-hand-man Jay Garrity abruptly quit the campaign after he had pretended to be a policeman in order to intimidate people.

In one case, he used a flashing police-style light to pull over a New York Times reporter, and order him to stop following the Romney campaign caravan. Another time he allegedly identified himself as "Trooper Garrity of the Massachusetts State Police".

But these are meltdown times for the Republicans. One of their number, the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is in prison. Earlier in the summer, the phone number of born-again senator David Vitter of Louisiana turned up in the black book of the so-called DC Madam. The long-standing senator Ted Stevens of Alaska is being investigated by the FBI for corruption in his dealings with lobbyists from the oil and gas industry.

The catalogue of scandals is causing a near-nervous breakdown for Republican strategists.

"The real question for Republicans in Washington is how low can you go, because we are approaching a level of ridiculousness," exploded one of them to a New York Times reporter.

The strategist Scott Reed went on: "You can't make this stuff up. And the impact this is having on the grassroots around the country is devastating. Republicans think the governing party in Washington are a bunch of buffoons who have total disrespect for the principles of the party, the law of the land and the future of the country."

The trouble for the Republicans is that they can no longer just recite the old story of politicians going to Washington and thumbing their nose at the electorate. The problems are everywhere. Rudolf Giuliani's campaign chairman for South Carolina had to quit after he was indicted for cocaine possession with intent to distribute.

The co-chair of Senator John McCain's Florida campaign was sacked after he was charged with soliciting sex from an undercover policeman. This may explain why Senator McCain was first in the queue to denounce his Republican colleague this week. "I think he should resign," he told CNN, "my opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime, you shouldn't serve. That's not a moral stand. That's not a holier-than-thou. It's just a factual situation."

With knives in his front and back, most of them administered by fellow Republicans, Mr Craig's political career appeared to be over yesterday. He has been thrown out of powerful Senate committees and is under investigation by the ethics committee.

And for the man who helped bring him down there is no glee. "This is a horrible thing," the Idaho Statesman's columnist Dan Popkey told the Washington Post, "It's a tragedy for Idaho, and I feel for him."