Philip Hensher: Senator Craig and a modern morality tale

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The Independent Online

The Larry Craig saga is a pleasingly old-fashioned narrative, now difficult to imagine happening anywhere outside the United States or other fundamentalist nations. If it weren't impossible to have any kind of sympathy for anyone involved in the idiotic story, it might make an amusing mini-series.

Mr Craig was, until a day or two ago, an American senator for the Republican Party in Idaho. He had the reputation of being staunch on family values, married to his lovely wife Suzanne with two fine upstanding sons and an upstanding fine daughter. Whenever the question of gay marriage or other awful proposition came up, Mr Craig ran shrieking into the "No" lobby.

The story follows a familiar path. In June, an officer of the law, one Karsnia, found himself seated on a lavatory at Minneapolis airport, when, according to the officer, the gentleman in the cubicle next to him "moved his foot into Karsnia's stall and tapped his foot, a signal often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct". The policeman showed his badge and bound over the man, who turned out to be the senator.

When the story came out, Mr Craig denied it and went on denying that he was attempting to lay out his physical charms for the police officer's delectation. Instead, he said that he had a "wide stance" when seated on the lavatory, which could be misinterpreted, and in reaching under the wall of the cubicle he was attempting to retrieve some lavatory paper. You may be reminded of the long-missed Mr Ron Davies, who on being photographed trolling around a well-known gay cruising ground, said that he had been "looking for badgers" in the middle of the day.

In any case, despite sticking to his denials, Mr Craig has resigned all his responsibilities; had the assurance that the Governor of Idaho, whose name, pleasingly, is "Butch" is right behind him; been telephoned by President Bush in commiseration; and pleaded guilty to everything.

In the wake of these interesting events, which will only become a scandal if we are determined to turn them into one, the American media largely followed a single line. We should be terribly sorry for poor Mr Craig. I understand the sentiment, without quite understanding its rational basis. Sorry that he has lost a well-paid political post? It would be absurd to lose an able politician on trivial grounds; but if they no longer considered sexual preference as a momentous issue of morality, the question of resignation would hardly arise.

Sorry that he has these apparently uncontrollable urges? I find that difficult to think of sympathetically, either. Many of us who have urges of any sort live blamelessly respectable lives with a partner of one sort or another, never or hardly ever thinking of effectively feeding our genitals under the partitions of airport lavatories on the off-chance of meeting someone in this direct way. It seems honestly rather unnecessary, unless you happen to be a member of a fundamentalist political party, in which case your options are limited. But why join such a party in the first place, if it hates you so much?

No, Mr Craig has made his bed, and must lie in it. One could express surprise and astonishment at the conduct of the Minneapolis policeman. It has been, I hope, a long time in this country since pretty policemen were dispatched to flutter their eyelids at lecherous homosexuals in public places. One wonders, in fact, at the arrest of someone who has merely indicated that he has an interest in having sex, an attitude which surely characterises the policeman as well as the punter, unless people were to be arrested on the basis of their sincerity. Everyone knows of policemen who preferred to engage in congress rather than make an arrest, if presented with a really attractive option. What happens if two highly attractive undercover policemen start cruising each other by mistake? One can only guess.

But what happened to Mr Craig did not come down on him out of a clear blue sky. He voted at the behest of his party for all sorts of federal measures which make it difficult for ordinary respectable homosexuals, as well as the other sort, to live their lives without annoying anyone at all. No one can doubt, surely, that if he were faced with the question of doubling the numbers of police arresting men involved in gross indecency, he would agree to it. No one can doubt, either, that by enacting measures which make it much harder for gay people to live their lives openly and decently, he has contributed to the huge numbers of gay Americans who do behave in a way which most of us here consider frankly uncivilised, and a nuisance to the general public.

Rarely do we see so neat a chain of events. Many of us in civilised countries have no particular objection to promiscuity in others, or really any sexual behaviour. Most people would agree, however, that beyond a certain point it is not acceptable to engage in lewd behaviour in public, whether heterosexual or homosexual. That sort of behaviour has, in this country, a pre-Wolfenden flavour. Most of us can work where we like, can get married to the person we love, and little consider the option of secrecy. In America, steps have been taken to ensure that the preferred sexual behaviour may have to be enacted in public and anonymously.

Everyone comes out of this story very much the less happy. But it is difficult to care very much when the "victim" was very much one of the creators, not only of his own unhappiness and frustration, but also that of hundreds of thousands of others.