On May 14, Sen. Larry Craig sat down with me, my editors and our publisher for an hourlong interview. Craig was calm, firm, even aggressive in denying ever having solicited or engaged in sex with any man.
Craig said he agreed to talk because of a lesson he learned 25 years ago as a panicked freshman congressman facing a similar allegation. That lesson: Never act out of fear.
Craig now says he didn't take his own advice and was scared into pleading guilty last month to a crime he didn't commit. The consequences include his likely resignation from the Senate.
Four weeks after Craig told us about the lessons of 1982, everything changed. Craig was arrested June 11 in the Minneapolis airport men's room in connection with a sex sting. Instead of fighting what he told the arresting officer was a wrongful charge, he pleaded guilty. Now, he's filed papers seeking to withdraw his August plea to disorderly conduct. A hearing will be held in a Minnesota courtroom Sept. 26.
Central to Craig's case is his claim that he didn't follow his own rule and keep cool. Rather, according a motion filed Monday, he was "deeply panicked" that news of his arrest "would provide the Idaho Statesman with an excuse to publish its baseless article. While in this state of intense anxiety, Senator Craig felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer; namely, that if he were to submit to an interview and plead guilty, then none of the officer's allegations would be made public."
The Larry Craig described in Monday's filings in no way resembles the tough, tested, 27-year veteran of Congress I've covered for two decades. The Craig I knew was thorough, deliberative, sought counsel and used his power.
Burned in the old Craig's memory was the moment in 1982 when he rashly denied involvement in a congressional page gay sex scandal. Craig issued his denial the day after a 17-year-old page claimed on CBS that he had sex with three unspecified congressmen. A month later, the page recanted, but Craig's panic made national news and fed rumors about homosexuality that persisted for decades.
Recounting that crisis during the May 14 interview, Craig said a reporter told him his name was going to be published.
"I was scared," Craig said. "Plain and simple scared. When you have somebody walk into your office and make that kind of an allegation and tells me he's gonna go to print — and I'm a freshman congressman and go, ‘Oh, my God!' "
Craig knows it was his premature denial that linked him to the scandal. "That's what we found out later, that's exactly right," Craig said May 14. "A little naivete on my part from being a freshman legislator."
With his wife, Suzanne, at his side, Craig said he wouldn't repeat the mistake he made in 1982. "I wouldn't handle it that way today, Dan. It's pretty obvious where you're sitting right now I don't handle things that way."
Indeed. Craig took three months to agree to that May 14 interview, and set a number of conditions. The interview was videotaped by his staff, but we were prohibited from videography. Our still photographer was limited to five minutes. Publisher Mi-Ai Parrish's presence was required. Craig spokesman Dan Whiting flew in from Washington, D.C., along with Brooke Roberts, a lawyer who has worked for Craig since 1984. Craig's Idaho spokesman, Sid Smith, also was on hand.
"I want this issue put to bed, and I want this project that your paper's been under for some time completed. Both Suzanne and I approach this in good faith that you will do a fair and responsible job. ... The reason you are here is you are chasing a false rumor."
During the hour on Craig's back porch, he weathered ugly questions about homosexual conduct. He heard a recording of a man saying he performed oral sex on Craig in a men's room at Union Station in Washington. He heard allegations from two other men that he'd made sexual advances toward them, and rumors about two alleged male partners.
Craig was unflinching, answering with "Hell, no!" and "Never!" and "You're damn right he misread it!" and "It's a bunch of false crap!" Said Craig, "There's a very clear bottom line here, Dan. I don't do that kind of thing. I am not gay, and I never have been."
As a result, we held off publishing anything — until Aug. 28, after another newspaper broke the story of Craig's guilty plea in the Minnesota case.
The new Larry Craig says he entered his plea in a panic. This seasoned, cautious, sophisticated man who's had a staff of experts surrounding him for 27 years says he didn't tell anyone what happened at the airport. Not his staff, not a friend, not a Senate colleague, not his wife, not a lawyer. No one.
Craig now says he pleaded guilty in hopes of "making it go away." More than seven weeks passed between his arrest and signing his plea. How did Larry Craig suddenly forget the lessons of a lifetime in power?
Dan Popkey: 377-6438