WASHINGTON — After Congress returned Tuesday to address 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 U.S. Sen. Larry Craig staying or going?
"Anything on any other subject?" McConnell said, clearly testy and fed up with the questions about his disgraced Idaho colleague. "I really have covered this issue."
After the first news Aug. 27 of Craig's arrest and guilty plea in a humiliating sex-related misdemeanor case, Republicans moved quickly to distance themselves from him. Never contrite, Craig disavowed his guilty plea and said he planned to fight for his seat and his good name.
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But in the rush to put the scandal behind the GOP, no one in Washington was listening to what Craig had to say.
Craig's fellow Senate Republican colleagues called for an ethics investigation and stripped Craig of his committee leadership posts. By the end of the week before Labor Day, Republican leaders had successfully pressured him to resign. They said they couldn't ignore his guilty plea to disorderly conduct, a charge that stemmed from his June 11 arrest by an undercover police officer who said Craig signaled he was interested in sex in the men's room of the Minneapolis airport.
"They just walked all over him," said Jim Weatherby, a retired political scientist at Boise State University. "It was clear it wasn't about Larry Craig or Idaho. It was about linking him to (former U.S. Rep.) Mark Foley and the congressional defeats of 2006 and their fear of a repeat."
Gov. Butch Otter had warned him. The day after the men's room story broke, Otter and his wife, Lori, met in Boise with Craig and his wife, Suzanne. "I told him, ‘Larry, I've made a few mistakes in my private life that slopped over into public news, and you're going to find out really quick who your friends are, but I want you to know that Lori and I are your friends," Otter said.
In less than two weeks, a man with a 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."
DAY 1 AND 2: TWO SHOCKING NEWS STORIES
From the moment Roll Call, a Capitol newspaper, broke the story of Craig's arrest online, the senator has been on the defensive — something Casey and several crisis communications experts say might have been a misstep. As many politicians who have weathered sex scandals have shown, Americans are often willing to forgive sinners as long as they acknowledge and apologize for their sins.
The morning after the Roll Call report, the Idaho Statesman published results of its five-month investigation into longstanding rumors that Craig engaged in gay sex — finding, among other things, that one man reported having oral sex with Craig in Washington's Union Station.
Craig called a news conference that afternoon. "I am not gay and never have been," he said. He said he had made a mistake in pleading guilty, and had done so under pressure from the Statesman's "witch hunt." He said he had hoped the matter would go away. He asked Idahoans to forgive him for bringing "a cloud over Idaho."
DAYS 3 AND 4: CONDUCT ‘UNFORGIVABLE'
Republican leaders were unmoved. The next day, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Norm Coleman, R-Minn., called on Craig to resign. McConnell and other GOP Senate leaders stripped Craig of his senior role on key committees. A day after that, McConnell called Craig's conduct "unforgivable" and dispatched Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to tell Craig how fellow senators thought.
DAY 5 AND 6: A GRACEFUL EXIT AND A VOICE MAIL
In Boise, state GOP leaders worked behind the scenes to engineer a graceful exit.
On Sept. 1 at the Boise Depot, Craig, flanked by Otter, U.S. Rep. Bill Sali and other Idaho GOP leaders, told the world he would step down. "I have little control over what people choose to believe," he said, as some supporters fought back tears.
And that was that — or so most people thought. Craig had another idea. Unknown to Otter and others, Craig had changed his resignation announcement to say it was his "intent to resign." In a misdirected voice mail message, he said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., had urged him to fight. Craig left the door open to stay.
DAYS 9, 10 AND 11: A ‘VERY SMALL DOOR'
When news of the voice-mail message broke the day after Labor Day, GOP leaders stood firm. "My view remains what I said last Saturday," McConnell said Wednesday. "I thought he made the correct decision — difficult, but correct decision — to resign." A spokeswoman for President Bush said Bush took Craig at his word that he would quit Sept. 30.
Senate leaders refused to dismiss the ethics complaint.
Finally, spokesman Dan Whiting said Thursday that it was unlikely Craig would remain in the Senate beyond Sept. 30. Craig was only leaving "a small — very, very small — door, very slightly ajar" in the event he was able to undo his guilty plea and dismiss the Ethics Committee investigation, Whiting said.
TODAY: FIGHTING TO CLEARHIS NAME
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 told his staff he would not seek a fourth term.
"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 have tried their best to stand beside the state's senior senator — even as they recognize his work in Washington is likely to end soon.
"What I have tried to do is be a friend," Sen. Mike 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, Rep. Mike Simpson took himself out of the running to replace Craig. He told The Hill, a 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. "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."
Craig was disheartened by his colleagues' reactions, Whiting said. Otter's warning was right.
"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."
Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104