Those weighing in on Larry Craig’s bathroom arrest have almost universally expressed bafflement at his statement that by pleading guilty he thought he could make the arrest “go away.”
Actually, this is one of the few logical assertions Mr. Craig has made: By quietly copping his plea (and by doing so through the U.S. mail) he kept his secret safe for more than two months. Had he lawyered up and fought the charges, we would have known instantly. And it’s not like beating the rap would have done much for Mr. Craig’s reputation, given the chatter that has surrounded his sexuality—and men’s room habits—for years. It’s true that his guilty plea was probably bound to come out at some point—but, slim as it was, it was his only chance to keep the public in the dark.
And, in fact, his reaction to his arrest has a historical precedent.
On a Saturday night in early October 1964, cops in Washington, D.C., barged into the basement men’s room of a Y.M.C.A, where they found one of Lyndon Johnson’s closest aides in a stall with another man. The aide was Walter Jenkins, a 46-year-old fellow Texan who had been with L.B.J. for decades. He was a married man with children, this in an era when homosexuality was equally unacceptable in both political parties.
Like Mr. Craig in the Minneapolis airport, Jenkins was arrested and booked. And like Mr. Craig, Jenkins quickly calculated that his own political survival depended on proceeding with discretion: he quietly admitted his offense, paid a $50 fine, and was released. Within minutes, he was back at the White House, burning the midnight oil and giving no one around the impression that anything was amiss—the same way that Mr. Craig jetted from Minneapolis after his own release to join his fellow Republican Senators hours later in blocking a vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
For Jenkins, the cover-up worked for only a week. How exactly his arrest came to light remains a mystery—some say the police leaked it to the press, other accounts have suggested a Washington Star reporter stumbled on it by happenstance while perusing a weekly summary of police activity—but on the following Saturday night he was informed by the Star that they were preparing a story on his restroom exploits. The presidential election—which Johnson would win in one of the most smashing landslides in history—was weeks away, and L.B.J. was in no mood to take any chances: Without blinking, he jettisoned Jenkins, even though Jenkins had served him with more loyalty and devotion than anyone else.
“On this case, as on any such case, the public interest comes before all personal feelings,” Johnson said at the time.
In the same way, of course, Mr. Craig’s own political allies are now cutting him loose. Mitt Romney, his chosen presidential candidate, has branded him “disgusting” and Mr. Craig’s Senate colleagues have stripped him of his committee assignments. Trent Lott, who for years harmonized with Mr. Craig in the “Singing Senators” barbershop quartet, is among those now demanding an ethics investigation.
What is most striking in the comparison of the Craig and Jenkins cases is that each man exhibited the same instincts upon being arrested, and they both also demonstrated a remarkable ability to compartmentalize, carrying on with their everyday lives after their arrests like nothing had happened.
In Jenkins’ case, that might have something to do with the fact that he’d been down the same road before. He had actually been arrested in the exact same men’s room under virtually identical circumstances in the 1950s. Then, too, he had quietly pleaded guilty and nonchalantly returned to his work and family life. Probably because he was then only an aide to the Senate Majority Leader—and not the President of the United States—his arrest escaped notice that time. It seems likely that between those arrests, Jenkins made other visits to the YMCA men’s room that didn’t attract the notice of law enforcement. By ’64, he was used to balancing—however perilously—his personal urges with the imperative of keeping up public appearances. When he was caught, he had little trouble focusing his attention on the best strategy to keep it quiet.
Mr. Craig may have a similar history. His home state’s paper found a 40-year-old man who swears he engaged in sexual activity with Mr. Craig in the Union Station men’s room three years ago. His familiarity with the unspoken language of men’s room trysts—at least according to the Minneapolis police report—certainly suggests that Mr. Craig is a veteran of such encounters. From this standpoint, Mr. Craig’s bottom-line calculation about the necessity of pleading guilty certainly makes sense—even as it flatly undercuts his contention that the restroom incident itself was a “he said/he said” misunderstanding. He didn’t “panic” and plead guilty—he made a sober-minded, and not entirely illogical, decision to do so.