The thousands of stories written about Idaho Sen. Larry Craig since news of his arrest in a Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport broke can be filed into a number of categories. There are plenty of who, what, where, when why stories, including the original muckraking by Capital Hill’s paper of record, Roll Call. Then there are the numerous political analysis stories: Republicans hit hard, can’t take another scandal type reporting.
There are the stories from the left calling Craig on his apparent hypocrisy for voting one way while acting another. And stories from the right calling on Craig to resign for his apparent hypocrisy for acting one way and voting another.
Then there is this gem from The Nation’s Washington correspondent John Nichols: “No one noticed he was there. No one will miss him.”
Nichols calls Craig “an otherwise forgettable hack who cruised out of the Senate without ever contributing a thing to the chamber or the country.”
But Nichols got it wrong.
Lots and lots of powerful people knew how to reach Craig and knew exactly the kind of stuff he could contribute.
“He understood important Idaho issues and how they affect other senators,” said Gregory Casey, a twice former Craig chief of staff and confidant of the now/soon to be deposed senator.
Casey, who last Saturday escorted Craig to the Boise Depot press conference where he “intended to” resign, said that Craig understood Western issues and was well placed to convince senators from other regions that those issues mattered.
But even Casey, who has backed Craig since this scandal broke August 28th, is now speaking in the past tense about Idaho’s senior senator.
“He was a work horse, not a show horse,” Casey said, ignoring a call from the New York Times while we chatted about how much he misses Boise.
Casey, a former Sergeant at Arms in the U.S. Senate who is originally from Idaho, runs the U.S. Business and Industry PAC, a conglomeration of corporate political action committees which he proudly describes as the “backroom political machinery for American business.”
One of his ideas is to sell workers – including many at America’s Fortune 100 companies – a pro-business political message through corporate Web sites.
These are the folks who had Larry Craig’s ear, and he worked tirelessly for them.
If you want to protect the 1872 mining law, if you are in the timber industry or if you feel hurt by a glut of computer chips on the Asian market, you could go to Larry, Casey said.
Casey told me that Craig had always intended to fight the charges in Minneapolis, ever since Roll Call broke the story last week. He echoed the senator’s criticism of Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey’s investigation into Craig’s sexuality.
“I know the kind of pressure – I was interviewed by Dan Popkey. I saw Dan Popkey interviewing people all over town,” Casey told me, adding that his former boss just panicked when he was arrested.
Craig told the Statesman in a recent interview that in 1982, when he preemptively issued a press release denying any involvement in the Capitol Hill page sex scandal, he had also panicked.
People who worked in Craig’s office over the years were well aware of the rumors about their boss. But several former Craig staffers told me they never saw him act in any but the most disciplined and upstanding manner.
“If you go and you work for an elected official all of a sudden everything that’s ever said or written about your boss is something you pay attention to,” said Nate Helm, who was Craig’s natural resources field coordinator until about three years ago.
Helm, now the director if Idaho’s wing of the hunting group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife said that his experience in Craig’s office got him where he is today.
“Working for Sen. Craig was the best thing that could ever happen for somebody with that kind of interest,” Helm told me. “I’m nothing without the Senator.”
Helm said that Craig’s position in the Senate with regards to appropriations was a major benefit to Idaho.
“When you’re in charge of the agenda and you’ve been there and you know the process – it helps,” he said.
Outside of Idaho and the Mountain West, Craig was seen as influential, but not necessarily on a national scale.
“He was certainly an influential senator,” said University of California Los Angeles political scientist Barbara Sinclair.
Sinclair said he was not widely known as a senator who took a big policy role, until the recent debate on immigration in which Craig took a controversial stance for a Republican and took a lot of heat for it.
“I was rather surprised at how quickly the Republican leadership in the Senate, I was going to say jumped on him… that may not be the right… It struck me as rather unseemly,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair had just returned from the annual American Political Science Association meeting in Chicago where between panels on Empire in Comparative Perspective and Beyond Florida 2000: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Issue of Vote Rigging, 7,000 political scientists from across the country snickered and guffawed at the fate of Idaho’s senior senator.
Sinclair, who has written extensively about the modern Senate, said a replacement for Craig will not have the same clout as the three term senator, but that the thing about the Senate is that every state has the same vote, whether Idaho or California.
“Seniority isn’t as important as it used to be but it’s still how you get up the ladder on committees,” she said.
The last time I interviewed Senator Craig, in late June sometime after his arrest, we talked about his nuanced view on immigration. It’s a view he came to after years of hard work and actual listening and learning, according to many people who were involved in the discussions.
Then we talked about sheep.
Sheep ranching, that is. Craig, a strong advocate for ranchers, often at the expense of the environment, restated his position that ranchers and industry should be the stewards of wild lands.
And if they are not, the West becomes, “a bit of a museum piece where Easterners can come and see it.”
The Nation did get one thing right however. The powerful resource extraction interests and industrial interests and nuclear interests that counted on Craig’s support have already moved on.
And Craig will be remembered not for his views or his votes, nor for keeping the west from becoming a museum. No, Craig will be remembered only for the House of Mirrors where he was arrested.
Or as Nichols put it, Former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Bathroom.