Friday, August 31, 2007

Larry Craig?s dry, hot American summer

Michael Ames, a former Express reporter, was communications director in the 2006 Brady for Idaho campaign.


On Aug. 20, when Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter declared Idaho a disaster area, things in the Gem State were at a fevered pitch. Five percent of our 83,574 square miles were aflame. Massive wildfires raged in the Boise, Salmon-Challis, Payette, Clearwater and Sawtooth national forests. Here in Blaine County, Castle Rock threatened the cradle of Idaho tourism.

It could not, it seemed, get any worse.

Then, with the suddenness and unpredictability singular to firestorms, Sen. Larry Craig was outed for gay cruising in an airport bathroom. The same day that story went public, Baldy caught fire.

It had been a quiet weekend before a cold front shouldered into southern Idaho on Sunday, whipping winds and igniting brittle timber on the backside of your local world-class ski hill. With the $12 million Seattle Ridge Lodge at risk, the resort revved up the snow guns—the world's largest sprinkler system—and wetted down the tinderbox as fire crews surrounded the lodge and fought off three separate uphill fire advances.

Had he faced the reality of his own firestorm, Craig's week could have gone far smoother. He could have, like former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, acknowledged his burning desires. But despite opening Tuesday's press conference by thanking everyone "who came out today," Craig's tactic was outraged denial.

"Fire? There is no fire here!"

It was a summer of uneasy calm for our senior senator. Dan Popkey, Idaho's hardest-hitting reporter, was hot on a 27-year long trail of rumors and allegations well-circulated among Boise press and politicos. An unforgiving world was closing in on Craig. One misstep could spark disaster.

Or one errant game of footsie.

Craig contends it was his "wide stance" on the throne that led to the Minnesota misunderstanding. But in light of his past, it's difficult not to see the arrest as the logical end to a run of increasing recklessness by a man incapable of confronting his demons.

Last October, in the midst of Republican Mark Foley's public pederasty, gay activist blogger Mike Rogers went on a crusade. The problem: family-values-spouting politicians rogering anonymous men around town. The solution: outing hypocritical Bible thumpers as craven sex addicts. Rogers found a man who claimed a sexual encounter with Craig in a Union Station bathroom. The man went on national radio, saying he could identify Craig's anatomy in a pants-down, Senatorial lineup. But the anonymity of the thing reeked of tabloid trash, and activist Rogers' attempt to nail Craig fell short.

After the 2006 elections, the Idaho Statesman set Popkey on the trail.

Popkey asked a lot of people if Larry Craig was gay. Some said yes. Others said no. Rumors had followed the man since college. Months of research notwithstanding, Popkey's story was far from watertight, legally or journalistically. Popkey's attempted coup de grace was shelved and Craig, it seemed, had survived another spot fire.

Which makes it all the more amazing that, under such flammable conditions, the senator who once called Bill Clinton "a bad boy, a naughty boy," cruised for gay sex in an airport bathroom.

Maybe being a closeted gay Republican senator from Idaho is like fighting a forest fire. You are at the mercy of nature. Your problem flares. Hot embers fly and spark spot fires in public places. Evasive actions, like controlled burns, are needed. But sometimes, when the hot Western winds whip, a fire will run its own course.

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