Larry Craig

Popkey: Craig hopes to redeem himself for future lucrative job as lobbyist

There is a model for the rehabilitation of a disgraced senator, and Sen. Larry Craig knows it well.

Craig sat on the Ethics Committee that recommended the expulsion of his friend Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. After the committee's unanimous vote in September 1995, Packwood resigned, ending a fight that lasted almost three years.

But 12 months later, Packwood hung up his shingle. By 1999, his company was billing more than $1.5 million a year to lobby Congress alone. His clients have included Northwest Airlines, Marriott, the AFL-CIO, and energy, finance, trucking, telecommunications and health care industries.

Craig appears to be engineering a campaign to reconstruct his image and make him employable. He's following the lead of Packwood and a second man humiliated by sexual misconduct, Bill Clinton. Craig advocated Clinton's removal from office, only to see him become an asset to his wife's presidential ambition.

Redemption is possible, and it begins with a good PR campaign. Craig's appearances on NBC's "Matt Lauer Reports" and on KTVB on Tuesday are one aspect of the plan. A second is Craig's appeal of a ruling denying his motion to withdraw his guilty plea for disorderly conduct. The third is Craig's reversal of his "intent" to resign, which keeps him near friends likely to hire him when he retires in January 2009.

Craig has reason to believe he can recover and make a nice living. Craig's offense involved an allegation of soliciting gay sex in an airport men's room. The images are off-putting and have prompted a frenzy of jokes as Craig's "wide stance" excuse has become legend. Both Packwood and Craig were parodied on Saturday Night Live, sure proof of public disgrace.

But what Packwood did was more aggressive, egregious and disgusting than Craig's conduct.

The Ethics Committee found Packwood engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct from 1969 to 1990, which included unwanted advances on 18 women, including Senate and campaign staff, an elevator operator, a restaurant hostess and a hotel clerk. The committee found Packwood fondled, kissed, pulled hair and forced his tongue into women's mouths.

As ugly as all that, Craig didn't sever his friendship. On the day Craig voted to recommend expulsion for Packwood, the pair hugged. Craig then began sobbing, before entering the Senate cloakroom with his hands over his face.

Now, Craig can take heart in Packwood's recovery. I spoke with Packwood this week, but he declined comment.

Among his first big clients was Northwest Airlines, which hired Packwood in 1997 to press for changes in a trade agreement to permit more landings at Japanese airports.

Elliott Seiden was Northwest's vice president for government affairs and worked with Packwood for two years.

"He was just terrific," Seiden told me. "I never detected a hint of lack of interest in how Sen. Packwood was presenting our issue because of the circumstances of his leaving the Senate. Everyone with whom he spoke knew he was an expert on trade. So why would you discount his views because of something that happened in his personal life?"

Packwood's expertise was built over 27 years in the Senate, with two stints as chairman of the Finance Committee. He was a major author of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which made him attractive to many clients.

Seiden is now a consultant in Virginia. He said Northwest was mindful of Packwood's personal troubles, but any doubts were trumped by his skills. "The view at Northwest was he's a highly respected man in his field. Americans are fair people and forgiving people."

The American Public Power Association took a similar view. The APPA represents community-owned electric utilities serving over 44 million people. In 1999, there was a threat to the tax-exempt status of bonds issued to finance transmission facilities. APPA hired Packwood, who had been an ally in Congress and knew the Tax Code.

"He understood our issue and had a record of success with other clients," said Alan Richardson, then and now CEO of APPA.

Richardson also knows Craig, whose marketable expertise is in energy and natural resources, including agriculture, forestry, mining, oil and gas and nuclear power. "There have been fewer than 2,000 U.S. senators since the founding of our republic," said Richardson. "It's a pretty exclusive club and anyone who leaves continues to be a member."

Asked to assess Craig's job prospects, Richardson said, "I don't know, but I think it's probably more time heals all wounds. Larry still does have some friends."

Craig is not a wealthy man. He needs his $165,200 Senate salary to pay the bills. He can count on a pension of about $100,000 annually, but he knows the potential to make far more.

I spoke with Craig about money on Aug. 9, the day after his guilty plea was entered but 18 days before it became public. Craig told me he hadn't decided whether to seek a fourth term in 2008, but acknowledged he could make upwards of $600,000 a year as a lobbyist.

"You step out of the House or Senate, if you have seniority, you've developed areas of expertise," Craig said. "Quite a bit can be made, there's no doubt about that, whether you're representing Idaho interests or national interests."

So if you're wondering why Craig broke his vow to quit and prolongs the agony on local and national TV, wonder no more. He's doing it for himself.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438