Collateral damage in high places

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Larry Craig’s adventures at the Minneapolis airport didn’t inflict harm on anyone in the men’s room, but there’s collateral damage in higher places. He’s likely to be back in Boise for good by the end of the week.

The senator from Idaho is learning the bitter lesson that it’s not the crime but the cover-up, even when it’s not much of a crime and the only complaining witness is an undercover cop assigned to look for creeps and peepers.

His “wide stance” in the stall, he says, explains why the cop mistook innocent toe-tapping for an invitation to whatever. The “stance” left footprints all over Republican colleagues who endured an endless spring and summer of scandal, calumny and disgrace. Some of these senators are playing Mr. Craig’s troubles as something of a “two-fer.”

They heap scorn on him to please the church folks who are an important part of the Republican constituency. But by showing Mr. Craig the back of their hands (so to speak), his Senate colleagues demonstrate to gays and double dealers in the media that they don’t have any truck with “hypocrites.”

Mitt Romney, who’s been trying to explain why his changes of mind on so many issues don’t make him the king of flip-flops, comes down uncharacteristically foursquare: Mr. Craig’s conduct is not only “disgraceful” but “disappointing.” Still, it’s important not to appear too principled, unnecessarily burdened by convictions or eager to apply a “moral” yardstick to behavior. “My opinion,” says John McCain, righteously, “is that when you plead guilty to a crime, you shouldn’t serve. That’s not a ‘moral’ stand. That’s not ‘holier-than-thou’. It’s just a factual situation.”

But some voters recognize the scent of something “holier-than-thou” when they get a whiff of it. One such voter in South Carolina asked Mr. Romney why the Republicans were falling all over themselves so soon, trying to be the first to shun the sinning senator. Mr. Romney replied, stiffly: “I don’t think there’s a responsibility to try to gild the lily in a setting like this. I think individuals across the country expect us to have the same expression that they feel, which is disappointment.”

Gays are particularly conflicted. On the one hand, the lavender lobby works hard to persuade the public that there’s nothing shameful about homosexuality. One Internet blogger even argues that the heterosexual majority is responsible for men getting arrested merely for trolling in the men’s room. Deprived of champagne and orange blossoms, such desperate men must look for love on the men’s room floor. On the other hand, watching Larry Craig, with his history of opposition to same-sex “marriage,” twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, is deliciously satisfying to defenders of the love that once dared not speak its name. Iron bars may or may not a prison make, but irony can hurt.

The rest of us, like it or not, have had to endure a crash course in restroom etiquette. Who among us knew that the placement of the feet while attending to certain needs of the body politic in a public restroom can be as intricate as the entrechat of a ballerina? Stumbling into a stall to deal with an emergency can be costly if you step on the wrong toes, accident or not. “Pardon me” is no defense.

The late Tallulah Bankhead, untamed Alabama belle, actress, daughter of a speaker of the House and neice and granddaughter of U.S. senators, once found herself in dire circumstances in a ladies’ room stall. “So I looked down and saw a pair of feet in the next stall. I knocked very politely and said, ‘Excuse me, dahling, I don’t have any toilet paper. Do you?’ And this very proper Yankee voice said, ‘No, I don’t.’ So I asked her, very politely you understand, ‘Excuse me, dahling, but do you have any Kleenex?’ And this now quite chilly voice said, ‘No, I don’t.’ So I said, ‘Well, dahling, do you happen to have two fives for a ten?’ ”

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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