Larry Craig

One Week: Calling for Craig's resignation wasn't easy, but made sense

Asking an elected official to step down — for the good of the people — is an editorial of last resort.

It's something no editorial board should do casually or capriciously. Calling for Sen. Larry Craig's resignation visits all kinds of turmoil on Idaho's political power structure. More importantly, it tells a 27-year member of Congress that his experience and expertise is no longer of use to his constituents.

But I also believe our editorial Thursday arrived at the only conclusion that made sense to our board: Craig needed to step down.

To me, it was a simple case of credibility and effectiveness. Craig's arrest and guilty plea — and his failure to fully account for the bizarre circumstances of his case — cost the senator too much credibility. With even fellow Republicans calling for his resignation, our senior senator could no longer effectively represent Idaho's interests on Capitol Hill.

A difficult editorial to write. Not really a difficult conclusion to reach. To me, there was overpowering evidence that Craig could not recover from this mess.

The sad saga of Larry Craig — and it is sad for the senator, his family, friends and staff and all of Idaho — reminds me of the scandal surrounding former Boise Mayor Brent Coles.

In late 2002 and early 2003, Coles was under a siege of his own construction: a series of startling revelations of lavish and questionable spending of city dollars on Broadway show tickets, pricey meals and taxpayer-financed side trips.

Unlike Craig, Coles had not yet been charged with any crime (although Coles would eventually serve jail time after pleading guilty to one count of misusing public money and one count of presenting a fraudulent voucher). However, the scandal consumed city politics and left Coles without any credibility.

It seemed common knowledge around town that Coles had no future. I couldn't find anyone to say otherwise. Everyone, it seemed, said Coles was a dead man governing.

Conventional wisdom was right, of course.

As an editorial board, we were wrong.

Instead of doing the difficult and right thing by calling on Coles to resign — as my instincts and my research told me to do — we stood by the embattled mayor.

"We're not ready to join the chorus of critics who are demanding Coles' resignation. ... But if Coles wants to hang onto his job — as he has insisted he will — then he needs to get out of hiding."

That's what we said on Feb. 9, 2003. Five days later, Attorney General Lawrence Wadsen announced a pair of misdemeanor charges against Coles, and the mayor resigned minutes later.

Our Feb. 9 editorial was naïve. We couldn't have known Wasden was on the verge of filing criminal charges. We should have known that Coles had lost all credibility and all capacity to govern. Instead, we whiffed. Not our finest hour.

Critics will suggest that we jumped too quickly to call for Craig's resignation — in effect, making the senator pay for our failure to make the right call on Coles. That's a fair question. It's one of the reasons these kind of editorials should be written as a last resort, and only after careful deliberation.

It comes down to defining the point of no return: When is a public official's image so tarnished that it's time to step aside? This is certainly a subjective measure. In the majority view — but not the unanimous view — of a six-member editorial board that gave this issue a lot of thought, Craig passed that point.

Panic Mode

As I read Dan Popkey's excellent and exhaustive first-day coverage of Craig's arrest, I was struck by the parallels between the Craig of 1982 and the Craig, evidently, of the summer of 2007.

Twenty-five years ago, Craig issued a pre-emptive statement denying any involvement with congressional page Leroy Williams, who alleged he had sex with three House members at age 17. Williams later recanted. Craig, then serving his first of five House terms, was the only member of Congress to issue such a pre-emptive statement, which only seemed to fuel more rumors about Craig's sexual orientation.

In a May interview with the Statesman, Craig said he panicked. "I was scared, plain and simple scared," Craig told Popkey.

In June, after his arrest at a Minnesota airport, Craig seemed to panic again. He kept his arrest not only from his Idaho constituents, but from his Senate staff. He said he made a mistake by not consulting with an attorney, and said he now regrets pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. "In hindsight, I should not have pled guilty," Craig said in a statement late Monday afternoon. "I was trying to handle this matter myself quickly and expeditiously."

One public relations problem for Craig — among a host of them — was that people tend to be suspicious of any public figure who seems to be running around in panic mode. Panic arouses skepticism and cynicism.

Survey says ...

On Tuesday, Craig sounded determined to ride out the controversy. According to a polling group that went out in the field that night, Craig may never have had a chance.

Fifty-five percent of Idahoans said Craig should resign as a result of the scandal, according to a SurveyUSA poll released Wednesday, while 34 percent said he should stay in office.

The numbers only get worse. Among respondents who called themselves Republican, 45 percent said Craig should step down, 42 percent said he should stay. Among conservatives, 42 percent said he should resign, 43 percent said he should stay. Both results sit within the poll's margin of error.

The same couldn't be said, not surprisingly, about public awareness of the Craig saga. Less than 36 hours after the story broke, a whopping 89 percent of respondents said they know about the story — and, I would presume from there, many of these respondents already had or were developing a deeply held view about the case.

Craig Tuesday sounded determined to serve out his term, and was even contemplating running for re-election. But if these poll numbers fairly reflect the mood of Idahoans, too many of Craig's constituents already had made up their minds.

Kevin Richert: 377-6437