Thursday, August 30, 2007

GAIL COLLINS: Men’s Room Chronicles

It is time for Republicans to start asking themselves whether there’s something about ceremonial leadership positions that causes their colleagues to collapse under stress.

Larry Craig was co-chair of the U.S. Senate Mitt Romney for President campaign until the recent unpleasantness caused him to resign. Senator David Vitter, the Southern regional chair of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign, got caught with his name on the D.C. Madam’s rolodex. The state representative who was titular head of John McCain for President in Florida was charged with soliciting sex in the men’s room of a public park. And then there was the South Carolina state treasurer who was chairman of his state’s Giuliani chapter until he got indicted on a drug charge.

Does lending one’s name to a Republican presidential campaign create an irresistible impulse to misbehave? Or is this the sort of job people only undertake when they feel a secret need to do penance?

When it comes to conservative Republicans’ explanations for how they came to be arrested in a public men’s room ....

(How often, really, do you start a sentence like that?)

... Craig’s claim that nothing happened, but that the Idaho Statesman made him so nervous he accidentally pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, was not exactly convincing. Still, it was an improvement over Bob Allen, the arrested Florida state representative and McCain backer. Allen claimed he offered to perform a sex act on an undercover officer because, as the only white man in the restroom, he felt he was in danger of being robbed.

The nation’s first famous-political-name-caught-in-a-men’s-room incident occurred in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson’s confidential assistant, Walter Jenkins, was arrested in the bathroom of the Washington Y.M.C.A. A shocked press corps theorized that Jenkins, a family man, must have been driven to uncharacteristic behavior by his slave-driving boss. “A psychiatric breakdown under the strain,” concluded Theodore White. Jenkins, who had actually been arrested once before at the same spot, told the F.B.I. that he had only been involved in those two incidents — but that if there had been any others “he would have been under the influence of alcohol and in a state of fatigue and would not remember them.”

Now, of course, we understand that people’s sexual impulses do not switch gears because they have been under a lot of pressure at work. The only possible reaction to watching Craig say “I am not gay” over and over had to be pity for the man and his unhappy family. The Republicans, however, are not in the mood to have a thoughtful discussion about how much the demonization of homosexuality tortures God-fearing conservatives who find their sexual impulses at war with the party line. Or to sponsor an interesting debate on whether a man who pleads guilty to waving his hand under a toilet stall is worse than a man who, say, once pleaded guilty to drunken driving. John McCain has called for Craig’s resignation. The party’s Senate leadership, having finally found a use for the Ethics Committee, has ordered up an investigation. (Thank heavens we didn’t distract them with Ted Stevens’s finances.)

Mitt Romney absolutely raced to condemn his former campaign committee luminary. Really, it was a good thing that when word about Craig first came out there weren’t any small children or elderly people between him and the nearest microphone. Romney not only wanted to distance himself from anything involving the term “he said-he said,” he was also fighting the whole school of thought that discounts the importance of a candidate’s private behavior. As the only leading Republican candidate for president who is still on his first wife, Romney wants private behavior way, way up there at the top of the list.

“The most important thing we expect from elected — an elected official is a level of dignity and character that we can point to our kids and our grandkids and say, ‘Hey, someday I hope you grow up and you’re someone like that person,’ ” he told Larry Kudlow on MSNBC. “And we’ve seen disappointment in the White House, and we’ve seen it in the Senate. We’ve seen it in Congress. And, frankly, it’s disgusting.”

People, have you ever in your life pointed to your kids or grandkids and said that you hoped they grew up to be like Larry Craig? Or Bill Clinton? Or Mitt Romney? No. You might hope they were as politically skillful as Clinton or as financially successful as Romney or as ... um, good at barbershop quartet singing as Larry Craig. We do not hire our elected officials to shape our children’s characters. We want them to pass good laws and make sensible decisions on our behalf. If something terrible happens, we want to feel that they are strong enough to get us through it. But we have very little investment in whether they’re faithful to their wives, or even whether they’re tortured by demons of sexual confusion.

Although if it involves men’s rooms, we would really rather not hear about it.

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