If you ever wondered why statements from Capitol Hill sound so canned, you might visit the large rooms where staffers sit in cubicles and write them. Someone had the brilliant idea of putting televisions in these rooms – often little ones on every desk – so staffers could follow the proceedings on the House and Senate floors via C-Span.
The staffers sit and marinate in tedious polemic, hour after grueling hour. It is hardly a surprise that their writing comes out so much the same.
Of all the “speechifiers”, Senator Larry Craig – he of recent wide-stance fame – was among the worst. I say that not just because he and I differed in our views when I was there. Craig had a pomposity, a bossy and aggressive certitude, that stood out from the field. Amplified through the scratchy speakers on the cheap TVs, his speeches could have replaced water boarding at Abu Ghraib. I’m not sure which would have been more inhumane.
But in Congress you see people off the stage as well as on, and this can be inconvenient to the dislikes you want to nurture. I sometimes encountered Craig at the elevators of the Hart Senate Office Building, at the basement level where the coffee shop is, and the garage. Once or twice, he invited me onto the Members-Only elevator if it came first. There may have been others with me. I think I was alone at least once. A few Senators would do that, but not many. We were just lowly staff.
At the time, I took it as a friendly gesture, the other side of what I saw on stage. Over the years, I had noted such civility among genuine conservatives (as opposed to right wingers, who are different.) The infamous Jessie Helms was courteous and courtly without fail. It was ardent liberals, who were too busy saving humanity in general, to make much time for humans in particular. The arrogance later shifted rightward along with the political winds.
I thought Craig had a streak of that old-school conservatism. There was not a hint of other motive that I recall. Now, of course, I’m going through those memories with a finer comb. I’m wondering if the Senator’s formality and certitude, and his ideological rigidity, were signs of a man who didn’t trust his own nature in public, and so erected walls to hide behind. I’m wondering too, if the invitations onto the elevator were veiled expressions in a way that even Craig himself possibly did not realize.
I don’t want to go that far. Still, one of the most striking things about this whole affair is how quickly Craig’s Republican colleagues pushed him overboard. I get the feeling they knew something all along, well before the airport bathroom mess. The Senate is like a village. Members are together constantly. Staffers date, and share apartments. There are not many secrets.
It is tempting to gloat over the hypocrisy. The projective quality of the Right’s gay baiting – the denouncing in others what they know (some at least) they harbor in themselves – has been pretty obvious all along. And yes, Craig did have it coming. He’s lying in a bed he made for himself.
Still, it is painful to watch this man stripped bare before the public, and cling so desperately to his psychological defenses. Maybe it was those small gestures of kindness, which were humanizing if nothing else. This is a part of Congress that can be hard to grasp out here on the opposite coast. It is a human institution, for better and for worse. Where we see pure, abstracted issues, people in Congress have to deal with those as embodied in other people, which is no easier than it is here in West Marin.
Show me a politician who appeals to the pure out here – a Dennis Kucinich for example – and I will show you one who, for all his admirable qualities, probably hasn’t gotten a whole lot done. A senator I know, a solid Democrat, and a true populist on such issues as corporate globalism, voted to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general, and took endless grief for it. But Ashcroft had gone out of his way to help my friend when there was no tangible benefit for himself. He had been honorable in all their dealings.
It is not easy to ignore such history, any more than it would be here – and especially when you know that someone worse could be waiting in the wings. (As it turned out Ashcroft had more rectitude than his many critics had suspected.)
Ritual unmaskings and humiliations become blood sport. You get a taste and you crave more. The media big shots will not disappoint. They’d rather give us diddling in the loo than, say, honest reporting about their sponsors. Fox News will find a Democrat in a bathroom. We keep sinking lower and lower. Larry Craig may be getting his deserts, but this is not a trend to encourage.
Point Reyes Station writer Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly and YES! magazines. He has worked on staffs in the US House and Senate.