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Larry Craig, Expendable Senator

This column was written by John Nichols.

After forcing Idaho Senator Larry Craig to resign for the twin "crimes" of being a fool and appearing to be gay, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried as hard as he could to seem sorry for the man whose trip to the wrong bathroom on the wrong day cost him a Senate seat.

"It is my hope he will be remembered not for this, but for his three decades of dedicated public service," chirped McConnell, who just days before was denouncing Craig's "unforgivable" desires, sicking the ethics committee on the misdemeanor senator and stripping him of his committee assignments.

Republicans leaders, who took no action against let-the-good-times-roll Senator David Vitter after the Louisiana Republican's penchant for prostitutes was revealed, couldn't get Craig out of their caucus quick enough.

It wasn't a fear of any "gay germs" that might be spread by Craig - the minority leader is well aware of the fact that Craig was hardly the only closeted Republican on Capitol Hill. It was that Craig was the most expendable man in the Senate. No one noticed he was there. No one will miss him.

McConnell and his lieutenants wanted Craig out fast because he was only doing more harm to the party's seriously soiled reputation and because any Republican who replaces him now will be likely to hold the seat for the embattled Republican caucus in next year's election.

That's what makes McConnell's goodbye to Craig the most hypocritical statement heard during the whole of the Senate GOP's recent bathroom break.

The minority leader knows full well that the only thing that will be remembered about Larry Craig's 33 years in the political arena - as a state legislator, congressman and, since 1990, member of the most exclusive club in America - is that the senator failed to flush when following a cop out of the stall where he had been caught cruising.

Craig was such a senatorial no-account that, even though he arrived in the chamber well before the Republican revolution of 1994 and thus should have been a powerhouse by now, one of his primary claims to "fame" was as a key player in the Congressional Potato Caucus.

If Craig was known for anything, aside from his extracurricular activities, it was for his bizarre lambasting of then-President Bill Clinton for fooling around with a White House intern. The senator told Tim Russert on NBC's Meet The Press that, "The American people already know that Bill Clinton is a bad boy - a naughty boy. I'm going to speak out for the citizens of my state, who in the majority think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy."

At least Craig slurping references to naughtiness made him sound flamboyant.

That's more than can be said for the rest of his tenure in Washington, where he arrived with Ronald Reagan in 1981 and voted the party line about as consistently as could be expected for a man whose primary claim on a Senate seat was his party affiliation. Craig liked to play cowboy and pretend to be an independent-thinking westerner. But if a Republican president said "Jump," Craig asked "How high?" And if a Republican Senate leader said "crawl," he asked, "How low?" As a member of successive Congresses, he was for undeclared wars, curtailing civil liberties, tipping the economic scales to favor the wealthy, despoiling the environment and delivering on a regular basis for Wall Street's free-trade agenda as the proud co-chair of the "World Trade Organization Caucus for Farmers and Ranchers." And Craig was against same-sex marriage, extending the federal definition of hate crimes to cover sexual orientation and protecting the employment rights of gays and lesbians.

The senator's interest groups ratings were as predictable as his hypocrisy. He had a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition, and a 0 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign. He was the best of the bunch as far as the Business-Industry Political Action Committee was concerned, and pretty close to the worst in the eyes of Public Citizen.

There are those who might suggest that Craig at least served as a consistent conservative. But even that is untrue. When hardcore conservatives broke with the Bush Administration on spending and immigration issues, Craig refused to deviate from the White House line.

Craig was not even in tune enough with his home state to stand with fellow Idaho Republicans like former Congressman Clement Leroy "Butch" Otter - who, as Idaho's governor will appoint the senator's replacement - in defense of privacy rights. As Craig's congressional colleague, Otter was a remarkably determined defender of Constitutional rights, who voted with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., against the Patriot Act in the fall of 2001 and who emerged as one of the sharpest Republican critics of the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping schemes and related assaults on basic liberties.

Had Larry Craig sided with Butch Otter in those fights, had he ever once done anything honorable or even interesting, his exit might merit some reflection on "his three decades of dedicated public service." As it is, Craig will be remembered accurately - as an otherwise forgettable hack who cruised out of the Senate without ever contributing a thing to the chamber or the country.

Mitch McConnell got the equation precisely wrong. Nothing about Larry Craig's sojourn in that Minnesota bathroom will ever be so "unforgivable" as the fact that he was offered three decades in which to shape the fate of his nation for the better - or at least for what he thought was better - and came away with nothing to show for it.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation