Craig's dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) addresses members of the news media.
U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) addresses members of the news media. Joe Jaszewski/Idaho Statesman

WASHINGTON — As Congress returned last week to tough questions about the war in Iraq and demanding work on spending bills, reporters gathered around Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, wanting an answer to just one question:

Was Sen. Larry Craig staying or going?

"Anything on any other subject?" the Kentucky Republican asked, clearly testy and fed up with questions about his disgraced Idaho colleague. "I really have covered this issue."

From the first news two weeks ago of Craig's arrest and guilty plea to a humiliating sex-related misdemeanor, Republicans moved quickly to distance themselves from him. Never contrite, Craig disavowed his plea and said he planned to fight for his seat and his good name. But in the Republicans' rush to put the scandal behind them, no one in Washington was listening to what Craig had to say.

Craig's Republican colleagues called for an ethics investigation and stripped him of his committee leadership posts. By the end of that week, Republican leaders had successfully pressured him to resign, saying they couldn't ignore his guilty plea to disorderly conduct, a charge that stemmed from his arrest June 11 by an undercover police officer who said Craig had signaled he was interested in sex in a men's room at the Minneapolis airport.

In a matter of days, a man with a distinguished 27-year career in Congress became a party pariah.

"It's been heartbreaking," said Greg Casey, Craig's former chief of staff and one of his confidants and advisers. "It's been heartbreaking for the man Larry Craig, and secondarily for the people of Idaho. I don't think it will take very long for them to figure out what they've lost."

From the moment the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call broke the story of Craig's arrest Aug. 27, the senator has been on the defensive, a move that Casey and several crisis communications experts say might have been something of a misstep. As many politicians who've weathered sex scandals have shown, Americans often are willing to forgive sinners as long as they acknowledge and apologize for their sins.

Instead of saying he was sorry for what he did, Craig told people it was a mistake and that pressure from his hometown newspaper forced him into the guilty plea.

Within days, Craig had announced his intention to hire lawyers who'd work to undo his guilty plea as well as fight to have an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee dismissed. On Tuesday, Roll Call released a misfired voice mail showing that when Craig announced his resignation, he deliberately used the phrase that it was his "intent to resign." If he could clear his name, it was "his intent" to stay in office through the end of his term.

A spokesman said later in the week that it was unlikely that Craig would remain in the Senate beyond Sept. 30. He was only leaving "a small — very, very small — door, very slightly ajar," in the event that he was able to undo his plea and dismiss the ethics committee investigation, spokesman Dan Whiting said.

Now, Casey said, Craig's fight is mostly about clearing his name, not about holding on to his Senate seat. Even before news broke of his arrest, Craig had decided not to seek a fourth term in the Senate.

"Larry isn't going to stay in the Senate. He's fighting for a totally different thing: his legacy for his wife, his family and his grandchildren," Casey said. "Who wouldn't fight for his legacy? I think we all would."

Craig's Idaho colleagues say that in the absence of support from Washington, they've tried their best to stand behind the state's senior senator, even as they recognize that the work in Washington on behalf of Idaho is likely to go on without him as of Sept. 30.

"What I have tried to do is be a friend," Sen. Michael Crapo said. "My discussions with him have consistently been along the lines of letting him know that whatever decision he made, I would stand by. I think he needed that. And certainly he did not need to have me or anybody else encouraging him one way or the other from the political perspective."

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, took himself out of the running to be Craig's replacement. He told The Hill, another Capitol Hill newspaper, that he thought Senate Republicans had pursued party interests instead of treating Craig like an individual.

"I hope I never stub my toe and they throw me under the bus," Simpson said, referring to party leaders. "If that's how they treat their own, that tells me they're more interested in party than individuals, and the party is made up of individuals. How you treat them says a lot about your party."

For Craig, it's been disheartening and disappointing to see how his colleagues have reacted, Whiting said.

"It's times like this when you're reminded who your true friends are," Whiting said. "And Larry was reminded his true friends are in Idaho."