David Vitter returned to the U.S. Senate this week, having survived the storm, such as it is, over his trysts with ladies of the evening. So far the tempest over this particular constituent service resembles an afternoon thunderstorm over Lake Pontchartrain, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing that can't be easily overlooked in Louisiana.
Mr. Vitter, the junior senator from New Orleans, which sometimes calls itself "the city that care forgot," surprised everybody a fortnight ago when he acknowledged that a telephone number in the billing records of a Washington call-girl service was in fact his. He called his commercial dalliances "a very serious sin" and said he had made amends to his wife and wouldn't do it again.
This was no small accomplishment. When "the Canal Street madam" in New Orleans made a similar accusation against him — without evidence or documentation — when he was first elected to the House of Representatives, his wife told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that she didn't believe it and it was a good thing for him that she didn't. "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary Clinton," she said. "If he does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."
Several unsavvy Democrats in Washington (but few in Louisiana) thought his acknowledged dalliance this time might be the end of Mr. Vitter as a senator, though he doesn't have to run for a second six-year term until 2010. But Mr. Vitter may be merely on his way to erasing his reputation as a proper if not necessarily prim Boy Scout, a reputation that nobody in Louisiana, even a Republican, is likely to long survive.
As scandals go, this one is piddling stuff on the bayous, where they like their politicians served rare, even raw. Preachers have swaggered through greater shames than this. Huey Long more or less invented flamboyant politics, though he never acquired a reputation for female trouble. But his little brother, Earl, did, cavorting with Bourbon Street strippers, and everybody loved him all the more for it. Once, after he sprung himself from a loony bin where his angry wife had contrived to put him, I spent a rollicking Sunday afternoon chasing him and his doxy Blaze Starr across the Ozarks in their search for a perfect country ham.
Edwin Edwards, the most popular pol in Louisiana since Huey Long, was the most flamboyant of all. "The only way I can lose," he boasted on the eve of dispatching incumbent Gov. David Treen, the Republican, in 1983, "is if I'm caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy." The Republican governor was a favorite foil. "Treen is so slow that it takes him an hour and a half to watch '60 Minutes,' " he once taunted him. Gov. Treen accused Edwards, trying then for a comeback, of talking to voters out of both sides of his mouth. Edwards replied: "Yeah, I talk out of both sides of my mouth. I do that so people with half a brain like you can understand me."
Louisiana lapped it up. With a shrug and boyish grin, he explained how he could take illegal campaign contributions. "It's illegal for them to give, but not for me to receive." When his aide was convicted of taking bribes from Carlos Marcello, the Mafia don in New Orleans, voters from Venice in the far south to Vivian hard on the Arkansas border in the north, grinned and shrugged, too. Eight years later, when he was forced into a runoff against David Duke, the one-time grand wizard of the Louisiana Ku Klux Klan, automobile bumpers across the state sprouted with bumper stickers urging Louisiana to "Vote for the Crook, it's important," and "Better the lizard than the wizard." He won in a landslide.
He was never caught with either the dead girl or the live boy, but he was convicted six years ago of fraud and racketeering. Such crimes were once regarded more as nuisances than felonies in Louisiana, but he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, where, ailing and abandoned by his second wife, he will soon observe his 80th birthday. Several Louisiana pols, including two former senators, John Breaux and Bennett Johnston, and David Treen whom he so mercilessly mocked nearly two decades ago, will petition President Bush to commute the sentence to time served. What's a felony or two between friends? Laissez les bons temps rouler: Let the good times roll.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times