Befriending the fallen

When a member of Congress becomes the subject of scandal, most colleagues scatter. But there are always the scant few who stick by a lawmaker in hot water.

It can be brave. It can be foolish.

Lawmakers say they don’t wish to be seen as heroic because of their support. All of the members interviewed for this story shrugged it off, as if they feel embarrassed for being recognized as standing by a friend in trouble.

Rep. Vito Fossella’s (R-N.Y.) is the latest example. On a recent weekend, Fossella’s closest confidant in Congress, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), said he received some 50 phone calls from New York tabloids. Even during this interview, his cell phone bleeps repeatedly — more calls from reporters.

Two decades older than the 43-year-old Fossella, King, 64, has taken on the role of the young, fallen lawmaker’s mentor, savior and spokesman all in one. He sees it as “trying to humanize Vito.”

How did Fossella retain King’s support after a DWI arrest and revelation of a second family?

“He’s a very close friend, probably the guy I’m closest to [in Congress],” King said last week.

He added, “But for the grace of God go I.”

King vocalized the idea that aberrational, bad things can happen to good people — as he believes is the case with Fossella and his wife, Mary Pat. While he does not condone what Fossella did — neither the DWI nor the infidelity — he said the infidelity is Fossella’s private business and he won’t turn his back on him. As for the DWI, well, that’s a more serious matter. “Someone could have been hurt,” King conceded.

Another reason King maintains his public support is because he sees a collective ganging-up on Fossella: “I felt there was an onslaught against him by the New York tabloids; even people down here [in Washington] can be too quick to turn away or be judgmental.”

King knows a different Fossella.

“I know he is a good guy,” said King, who has turned Fossella into a character in each of his three books of fiction. “What happened here is wrong. What he did to his wife was wrong. But there is a goodness here. No one has ever been asked to resign for a first-time DWI. As for the affair, that is between Vito and his wife.”

Part of what makes Fossella’s story so poignant for King is that the day before the scandal exploded, King observed him in what he describes as a “euphoric” state of happiness about his life.

Fossella was arrested on May 1 for driving while intoxicated. That arrest lead to subsequent revelations Fossella had an out-of-wedlock daughter with retired Air Force officer Laura Fay.

On the night before it all began to unfold, King spent the evening at a Capitol Hill restaurant with Fossella and Fossella’s father-in-law. “We were kidding around, typical New York banter,” King recalled.

The next day, Fossella was in great spirits, said King, because he had his father-in-law sit in the gallery as the Irish prime minister spoke. Around 5 p.m., King said he ran into Fossella on the House floor and he was “on cloud nine.” His two sons had met Eli Manning. “He was the happiest he could be,” King said, recalling Fossella’s exact words, ‘Life couldn’t be better than this.’ ”

In recent days, King said, he has been spending a good deal of private time with Fossella, going to dinner with him and counseling him. Not once has Fossella tried to justify his bad behavior. “I have not heard one word of self-pity,” he said. “He feels terrible about what he did.”

He said Fossella is doing better than expected. He is “aware of the realities here,” King said. “Considering what he’s going through and the self-awareness he has, he is doing very well.”

King said Fossella tries to ease the awkwardness when others approach and ask how he’s doing. “He tries to alleviate other people’s discomfort, saying things like, ‘Oh, I’ve never been better.’ ”

But when they’re alone, King said, Fossella “gets very serious.”

So what does King make of his close friend with the double life? King said he was as surprised as anyone to learn of Fossella’s other family.

“As the story unfolded I was more surprised,” King admitted, saying he had no foreknowledge of the situation.

This is not the first time that King has come to the assistance of a politician-turned-pariah.

During the impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton, King was among the few Republicans who said Clinton should not be impeached.

“It was a terrible precedent, to remove a president from office for what was essentially a private matter,” King reasoned.  

Others have also benefited from lawmakers who refuse to follow the pack mentality. After Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) pleaded guilty to soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport men’s room, and Senate leadership was publicly denouncing him, a longtime friend, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), blasted Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for “throwing Larry under the bus.”

Simpson said he believed Craig at his word because, he said, he had never lied to him before.

He thought Senate GOP leadership shouldn’t be so quick to abandon one of its own.

In May 2006, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Mass.) found a friend — and an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor — in Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.). Ramstad became Kennedy’s wingman after Kennedy crashed his car into a barricade at the Capitol at 2:45 a.m. after taking prescription pills. At the time, he said, he believed he needed to vote. Kennedy attended rehab at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Ramstad visited and counseled him every step of the way.

There are other such friendships.

That same year, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) found steadfast friends in Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) after pleading guilty to taking bribes, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion. “I went to his sentencing,” Hunter said last week. “He was my seatmate in the San Diego Legislature. I was one of the guys who first convinced Duke to run for Congress.”

Hunter looks pained when discussing Cunningham, saying he should be doing more. “I have been lax in my responsibility to spend time with his son, Todd,” he said.

Together, Hunter and Hayes visited Cunningham in prison in North Carolina and prayed with him. Hayes said members of Congress are more forgiving than people think. “It may be the institution,” he said. “Congress as an institution can’t forgive travesty against the process, but members can and do on a regular basis.”

Just as Hayes leaves the underground tunnel of the Capitol, he calls out, “People went to see Paul [a disciple of Jesus Christ] when he was in prison.”

As for King, he will see Fossella through whatever decision he makes about staying or leaving Congress. He has opinions about what his younger colleague ought to do, but won’t reveal them. In fits and starts, he acknowledges that he knows which way Fossella is leaning. Will he stay or should he go?

King won’t say. For now, his lips are sealed.