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Alexander Burns: Larry Craig’s Antecedents

Yesterday, Fred Allen posted here an item that had shown up on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. It was a humorous story told by Tallulah Bankhead and repeated on Tuesday in connection with the breaking scandal involving Senator Larry Craig. This wasn’t the only post on Sullivan’s site about the Craig affair. Jamie Kirchick, a guest-blogger who normally writes for The New Republic, posted yesterday about a 1955 incident that provides some useful historical background to the contemporary incident surrounding the Idaho legislator. I think it merits a link.

“In the fall of 1955,” Kirchick writes, “12 men were arrested in Boise, Idaho for ‘infamous crimes against nature.’ Over a decade, it had been alleged, some of the city’s most prominent men operated an underworld gay prostitution ring with hundreds of teenage boys. . . . One of the more humane participants in this episode was the chief of the state’s Department of Mental Health, who, rather than advocate that the men face jail time, offered that, ‘One alternative might be to let them form their own society and be left alone.’”

As Kirchick notes, the facts of this scandal turned out to be considerably less sensational than first reported, but it created an ugly atmosphere in Idaho all the same. It’s risky to play armchair psychologist for a public figure like Craig, but one imagines that, as a 10-year-old growing up in Washington County, the future senator might have heard something of the blowup in Boise. A lot of people are rushing to judge Craig’s private behavior and to find hypocrisy by comparing it with his public record. Their conclusions are largely reasonable, but I find it’s hard not to pity Craig a little, considering the spectacular intolerance he must have witnessed as a youth. The man didn’t grow up in the twenty-first century, and, to quote Kirchick again, it’s perfectly possible that “1955 has hung over Larry Craig all his life.”

There’s also a decent comparison to be made between Craig’s problems and those of a different Western senator, dating to 1954. Lester Hunt, a Democratic senator from Wyoming, had run afoul of Joe McCarthy and the Senate’s Republican majority. He was up for reelection in 1954. Republican Senator Styles Bridges, wanting to grab the seat for the GOP, told Hunt that he should forget about his reelection bid, or else. The “or else” in this case referred to information about Hunt’s son getting busted for soliciting an undercover officer for sex, and the possibility that the incident could be widely publicized in his home state. Hunt acceded to Bridges’s demands and decided to retire. Then he killed himself on Capitol Hill.

Larry Craig didn’t plead guilty to solicitation but rather to a much less serious, almost farcically silly charge. This being the case, one might expect that he’d dodge the kind of bullying Lester Hunt experienced half a century ago. But it’s notable that Senators John McCain and Norm Coleman have already called on Craig to resign, when neither made a similar demand upon David Vitter, who admitted to hiring prostitutes in June. There’s a hint of Styles Bridges in this double standard, and things are bound to get uglier.

Read entire article at American Heritage Blog