It’s safe to say that 2007 wasn’t a banner year. No matter how many awards Al Gore received, the climate still got worse. Two trillion dollars later, Afghanistan and Iraq remained in shambles. The endless slog otherwise known as the U.S. presidential campaign didn’t exactly produce Lincolnesque debate. The greed of entertainment industry producers forced Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert off the air. Mailer, Antonioni, Bergman and Knievel died.
Out of the darkness came one bright light, the saga of Senator Larry Craig. It began in a seemingly innocuous place: the men’s restroom at the Northstar Crossing of the Lindbergh Terminal in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Craig, a Republican from Idaho, regularly passed through on weekends, on his way back and forth to lawmaking sessions in our nation’s capital. Shortly after noon on Monday, June 11, airport police sergeant Dave Karsnia visited the restroom, a reputed meeting place for horny travelers. Dressed in plain clothes, Karsnia dutifully entered a stall in order to thanklessly carry out a pointless sting operation.
What happened next provided the stuff of Craig’s infamy. The senior senator from Idaho stood outside the door of the young sergeant’s perch. “I was able to see Craig’s blue eyes as he looked into my stall,” Karsnia said. After the neighboring toilet emptied, Craig set up shop. According to the police report, Craig first blocked the entrance to the stall with his luggage and then began tapping his foot—both signs that he meant business. He then brushed his right foot against Karsnia’s left foot and started swiping his hand along the stall divider, actions the senator would later attribute to his “wide stance” and search for toilet paper. Once nabbed, Craig had only just begun to feel the sting.
After pleading guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor (interference with privacy, a gross misdemeanor, was dropped) in early August, Craig hoped that the incident would be forgotten. But Roll Call, the inside-the-Beltway paper, broke the story late that month. From there, all hell broke loose. John McCain called for Craig to resign and Trent Lott helped strip Craig of his committee positions. Until that point, Craig was the Senate co-chair of the Mitt Romney campaign. Claiming “He’s disappointed the American people,” Romney now cut Craig loose; of the candidate’s treatment, the senator later said that Romney “not only threw me under his campaign bus, he backed up and ran over me again.” The cable news channels naturally ate the story up, with CNN showing round-the-clock footage of the airport stall in question. Despite Craig’s robust proclamations—“I am not gay. I have never been gay”—other men came forward with tales of sexual encounters, including, most recently, Mike Jones, the male escort whose trysts with Ted Haggard, the evangelical leader, led to that figure’s downfall.
Throughout his three terms in office, Craig, of course, has been an ardent foe of gay rights; in 2004, he received a rating of zero from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group. Yet the ongoing revelations about his proclivities have made it difficult for the Republicans to renew the gay-bashing agenda that worked so well for them in 2004. True to form, Republicans have since moved on to demonize a new group, undocumented immigrants, or a constituency unable to vote. Shifting his party’s focal point of hatred was certainly not on Craig’s mind at the Northstar Crossing that fateful day. But the genius of American politics is that even a visit to the airport john can transform our national debate.
Such work is the major reason why Larry Craig is the Rail’s Person of the Year for 2007. The combination of media drama and political impact determines the winner. Two years ago, the inaugural award went to John Murtha, who woke up Congress about the reality on the ground in Iraq; last year, the honor was bestowed upon Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who, from a podium at the U.N., changed the debate over the true nature of the Bush regime. The drama of the Craig story has been even more prolonged. The senator has subjected himself to endless media flagellation, even allowing NBC’s Matt Lauer to re-enact portions of the precipitating event on prime-time television. Had Stephen Colbert actually run for president as a Republican, Craig would have indeed made the ideal running mate.
As 2007 comes to a close, the Craig saga is far from over. After his guilty plea and vow to resign, Craig has tried to withdraw his plea and changed his mind about stepping down. Such Shakespearian indecision befits a figure holding a Senate seat from Idaho, one of the least-demanding jobs in the land. It is just a bit unlikely that Craig will follow the lead of last year’s winner, Chavez, and launch a ham-handed, ill-fated power grab in the coming year. One telltale sign of his diminished standing came in late November, when Craig went before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to express his opposition to a bill aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The three-term senator was offered the last speaking slot, meaning that he took the floor after the newest member of the Senate, Wyoming’s John Barrasso, a Republican appointed to the office this past summer.
Humiliated but still determined to take a stance, Craig then wrote an op-ed explaining his position. Passage of the Barbara Boxer-sponsored bill that cut greenhouse emissions by power plants and other polluters, he said, would be a “symbolic victory for Europeans everywhere.” Of a U.N. conference on climate change scheduled for Bali in December, the Idaho senator cynically predicted, “Sen. Boxer will be welcomed as the liberator, and Al Gore will probably receive another award.” On those two counts, he is probably right. But if it’s any consolation, Senator Craig, your tragicomic efforts have made you, not Al Gore, the winner of the Brooklyn Rail’s Person of the Year 2007.