Purging Larry Craig

The Baltimore Sun

So now Larry Craig says he won't give up his seat in the U.S. Senate. And more power to him.

Mr. Craig was arrested in June at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where a police officer said the Idaho senator attempted to engage in gay sex. Mr. Craig pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, fellow Republicans threatened an ethics investigation, and the Idaho senator pledged to resign by the end of September. Last week, Mr. Craig's lawyers appeared in court to request a withdrawal of his plea. The court said no, but Mr. Craig now says he'll serve out his term anyway.

That's exactly as it should be. Shaming Mr. Craig out of office for his alleged homosexuality would echo some of the worst chapters of American history. And we should all be ashamed about it.

If you think otherwise, step back in time to the summer of 1950. That's when a Senate subcommittee conducted an investigation of "homosexuals and other sex perverts" in the federal government, especially in the State Department. Over the next three years, nearly 300 State Department employees would be fired or forced to resign because of alleged homosexuality.

How could you tell if someone was gay? It wasn't easy. One investigator reported that a male worker had a "jelly hand shake," while another suspect had a "feminine complexion" and a "peculiar girlish walk." A woman drew accusations of lesbianism when a co-worker noted her "mannish voice" and "odd-shaped lips."

Similar witch hunts occurred across the federal government, often connecting homosexuality to political subversion. When the government dismissed nearly 1,500 workers as security risks in 1953, famed red-baiter Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy boasted that 90 percent of the fired employees were "communists or perverts."

To make matters worse, state governments conducted their own purges.

In Florida, the board of education revoked licenses of 64 allegedly gay teachers. "Homosexuality is not an illness like chickenpox - you cannot see it by looking to another person's face," the state superintendent warned. "The presence of even one homosexual teacher in our schools is not to be tolerated."

Thankfully, a small number of brave voices condemned this anti-gay hysteria. In The New York Post, columnist Max Lerner imagined a government worker under investigation for homosexuality. "He isn't a spy, and he isn't a Communist or fellow-traveler, and he probably has no radical associations in the past," Mr. Lerner wrote. "But somewhere in his record, perhaps habitually or perhaps only on one or two occasions, he has had some kind of homosexual relations." Under these circumstances, the suspect had little choice but to confess. "To fight the charge would be worse than futile," Mr. Lerner noted.

But now Larry Craig says he will resist, as well he should. Today, of course, no one is suggesting that Mr. Craig undermined national security. Instead, Mr. Craig's GOP critics - including presidential aspirants John McCain and Mitt Romney - say that his actions were "unbecoming" and "inappropriate" for someone in national office.

That's absurd. Remember, we live in a country where both the president and the vice president have been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. But to the Republicans, apparently, a sleazy bathroom cruiser puts more people at risk than a drunken driver does.

And the Democrats? Most of them have stayed quiet, except to point out Mr. Craig's tangled politics on homosexuality. The senator has opposed gay marriage, but he also allegedly sought to engage in gay sex. Oh, the inconsistency! The duplicity! The hypocrisy!

But if you believe in gay rights without coming to Larry Craig's defense, you're every bit the hypocrite that he is. It matters little that Mr. Craig has taken anti-gay positions, or even that he denies being homosexual. Nobody should be hounded out of government just because we think he's gay. And that means nobody: not you, not me, and not a conservative Republican senator from Idaho. Anything less would compromise our best principles and repeat our worst history.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University and is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century." His e-mail is jlzimm@aol.com.

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