Scandal usurps Idaho’s legacy

I grew up in Idaho and became enchanted by politics there. The Gem State has a rich political history peopled with larger-than-life characters — the kind of towering figures who can inspire an idealistic young man. Radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, ranged through Idaho at the dawn of the 20th century. He was implicated in the bombing death of a former governor and strikebreaker who sent troops against some of Haywood’s miners. Haywood was prosecuted by newly minted Sen. William E. Borah and defended by Clarence Darrow in a widely publicized trial. Darrow and Haywood won that round, but Borah went on to become the legendary “Lion of the Senate” whose oratory on the floor brought reporters running to the chamber. A progressive Republican, Borah fought to liberalize his party while opposing what he saw as a dangerous centralizing of power by FDR and the New Deal.

I heard stories like these at the knee of C. Ben Ross, a three-time governor of the state. Cowboy Ben, as he was called, was a founding father of the Farm Bureau and savior of the Democratic Party in Idaho. Like many politicians, he believed his own legend. He also put too much faith in the prognostication of a family fortune-teller who correctly called his unprecedented three terms as governor and then predicted he would defeat Borah in a Senate race and ultimately make it to the White House. Borah won and Cowboy Ben went back to the ranch.

I was inspired as a college student by another Idaho senator, Frank Church, who had the insight and courage to speak out against his president and the ruinous war Lyndon Johnson was waging in Vietnam. Church was another great orator, and his words opened my eyes to the folly of American foreign policy. Ultimately I would work against the senator when he launched his belated drive for the presidency in 1976. I’d already signed on with Jimmy Carter, and one thing Cowboy Ben
taught me was that once you made a deal, you kept it.

There are no titans left in Idaho politics. Now Sen. Larry Craig (R) gets the headlines. And for all the wrong reasons. In a series of inept and confusing steps Craig got himself entrapped in a Minneapolis airport men’s room sting, tried to cover it up with a hasty guilty plea to a misdemeanor, neglected to tell friends or family about the event, categorically proclaimed his innocence and then weasel-worded what was supposed to be a resignation to protect his Republican Party from yet another scandal.

Craig, famously one of the Republican Party’s “Singing Senators,” is not the first Senate songster from Idaho to be arrested in a public restroom. Legend has it that liberal Democrat Glen Taylor announced his campaign for the U.S. Senate by riding his horse into the newsroom of the Lewiston Morning Tribune. A flamboyant maverick, “Idaho’s Singing Cowboy” not only sang about civil rights, he fought for them. In 1948, Sen. Taylor was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor for using a restroom reserved for Negroes in Birmingham, Ala. Sen. Taylor didn’t plea-bargain or hide his arrest from colleagues and the public. He ignored the whites-only door on purpose and he stood by his actions.

Larry Craig doesn’t have Glen Taylor’s flair or his courage. I don’t know and don’t care whether Craig is homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. I find the circumstances of his arrest somewhat troubling. But if he was entrapped — if it was just a wide stance — then he should fight the charge, defend his name and show he deserves the public’s trust.

Pleading down to cover up a potentially embarrassing legal battle is an act of political cowardice. Dragging wife and family into a public relations campaign to defend that act is worse. Crafting a so-called resignation statement to leave room for political maneuvering is crass opportunism. Here is the guy who called Bill Clinton a “nasty boy,” one-upping the former president’s cleverest parsing of words.

Craig misunderstands Idaho voters if he thinks he can get away with this political sleight of hand. They’ve seen this song and dance before. Politicians like Craig who think they are smarter than voters are going to get a message they don’t want to hear next November. Craig would be smart to leave the stage now. Idaho voters are not looking for an encore.


Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com.