There is something more than a little bizarre with the latest Washington feeding frenzy over Sen. Larry Craig. Don't get me wrong. I think what Sen. Craig did in the men's bathroom in Minneapolis was gross and sleazy. But is it really worthy of the press attention it has received this week? I just can't imagine a Democratic member of Congress being subjected to the same treatment if the facts, as we know them so far, were identical.
Let's say that Senator X, a prominent Democrat, was alleged to have, on rare occasion, solicited homosexual acts in public places. He never touched anyone or exposed himself or did anything else overtly illegal or anti-social, but merely tried to engage other men he thought might be gay by making eye contact or through surreptitious hand signals or, as in Craig's case, toe-tapping.
There were never any complaints against Sen. X by heterosexual men who were offended by his overtures. And only one or two gay men had ever come forward to say he had engaged in consensual sex acts with Sen. X. Then, Sen. X gets arrested in what appears to be a questionable sting.
The sting goes down like this: Police officers are set up to hang around a public bathroom known to be a favorite cruising spot for gay men. Sen. X comes into the bathroom and then stands outside a stall occupied by one of the policemen, who is there to catch gay men.
According to the actual police report, Sen. X did not overtly solicit sex or make illegal sexual contact with the police officer but merely looked through the crack of an occupied stall from a distance of three feet, then entered an adjoining stall, tapped his toes a few times, and swiped his hand along the bottom of the bathroom stall divider three times.
Now this behavior might have been annoying, even offensive, if the man in the other stall were there attending to bodily functions. But he wasn't. He was a police officer who was there solely to catch homosexual men soliciting others for consensual sex.
If Democratic Sen. X's hypothetical arrest ever made it into the papers -- doubtful, unless the senator chose to make it public -- I suspect the tone of the coverage would be rather different than Sen. Craig's treatment.
I can just imagine the Washington Post inveighing against police entrapment and homophobia and demanding that the private sex lives of politicians remain private unless their behavior involved an abuse of their official duties.
Of course, it isn't just the media who are going after Sen. Craig. His fellow Republicans are piling on, calling for ethics investigations and, understandably, trying to distance themselves from him. Some are even asking him to resign. This has been a disaster for Republicans, whose base is far more concerned about morality and traditional values than are most Democrats. But this is all the more reason you might expect the press to be calling for a little perspective here.
A lot of people would consider what Sen. Craig did immoral. Others, especially gay activists and liberals, would consider him a hypocrite because he has voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage exclusively as the legal union of one man and one woman. But immorality and hypocrisy are hardly uncommon characteristics in Washington -- or most other places for that matter.
Sen. Craig's denial that he is gay or has ever engaged in homosexual acts enrages some gay rights militants. The issue was first raised some 25 years ago when Craig stood accused, along with several other members of Congress, of having sex with congressional pages, allegations that were subsequently withdrawn.
Sen. Craig would have been better advised to remain silent on his sex life, but the media hypocrisy in this affair is at least as troubling as Sen. Craig's.
On the one hand, the media generally regards sexual orientation as a private matter, moreover one that is morally neutral. But because Sen. Craig is a conservative, although not someone who has had a history of gay-bashing, the media have had no qualms about violating his privacy. Indeed, Craig's home newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, spent five months delving into the senator's sex life.
Sen. Craig's political career is probably over. The abuse of power, however, was not Sen. Craig's but the media's, who pick and choose whose privacy they will violate on a partisan basis.