Senator Craig's Straight Talk

Senator Larry Craig's news conference this afternoon had one purpose: to shore up the Idaho Republican's endangered heterosexual credentials. It was Craig's first public appearance since news broke of his arrest in June on charges of lewd conduct in a men's restroom in the Minneapolis airport. The senator, who claims an undercover male policeman in the bathroom was mistaken when he suspected Craig of soliciting him for sex, told the media he now regrets his decision to plead guilty to the disorderly conduct charges at the time. The scene as Craig unveiled his statement, read with a mixture of pain and defiance, seemed eerily reminiscent of former Democratic New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey's 2004 public confession that he was "a gay American." But Craig's message went the other way. "I am not gay," he told the cameras. "I never have been gay."

Idahoans may not be so easily convinced. Craig has been hounded by rumors since October, when a gay activist blogger named Michael Rogers alleged Craig had a habit of soliciting sex in men's restrooms in Washington. (At the time, Craig's office said the allegations had "no basis in fact.") That a man under such suspicion should have his actions misinterpreted in a restroom known to be among the "cruisiest" in the Twin Cities seems a stroke of horrible luck indeed. (And if the police officer was in fact misreading the chain of events, what exactly was Craig doing reaching his hand into someone else's bathroom stall and tapping his foot across the divide?) If he is to persuade his constituents, it doesn't sound like he'll have a lot of help from his party. By the time he went before the cameras, Senate Republican leaders were putting distance between themselves and their embattled caucus member, recommending an ethics investigation into Craig's actions. Mitt Romney, whose campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency Craig had enthusiastically supported, quickly cut all ties to the senator—likening his former Idaho state chair to Bill Clinton and Mark Foley, the congressman disgraced in last year's congressional page sex scandal.

Thus the not-so-subtle heterosexual subtext to Craig's statement this afternoon. As he read it, the senator's nerdy 1950s glasses sat snugly on his nose. He wore his short-sleeved button down shirt buttoned almost to the neck. Its color: blue. His lips spit out the word "gay" like sour milk. Perhaps the most important element of the political choreography: the loose strands of blonde hair that fluttered against Craig's left shoulder in the wind. They belonged to his wife, standing by his side.

But Craig may soon learn that protestations of straightness can only get you so far. When evangelical minister Ted Haggard proclaimed himself "completely heterosexual" mere weeks after admitting to having physical contact with a male prostitute, even some of his former parishioners had a hard time believing him. Any number of A-List Hollywood actors and tough-talking hip-hop stars have found that publicly swearing they aren't gay only increases public perception that they are.

Craig probably isn't thinking much about Hollywood right now as he focuses on problems closer to home. The three-term senator has yet to announce whether he will seek run for reelection in 2008. The mere mention of anonymous man-on-man action and universally acknowledged cruising signals may not prove palatable to voters in one of the nation's most conservative states (George W. Bush carried Idaho with 68 percent of the vote in 2004). Suzanne Craig covered her face in dark sunglasses and kept her mouth shut as her husband spoke. Her tightly frozen face brought to mind Dina McGreevey, who watched transfixed as her husband, the New Jersey Governor, made his confession in 2004. (The McGreeveys have since separated and are in the midst of a bitter divorce battle.) The resemblance will prove a tough obstacle for Craig, who says the allegations against him amount to a "cloud over Idaho." As the McGreeveys, the Haggards and countless anonymous American couples might attest, a loyal wife can't always disperse gay rumors. And public promises of being "not gay" don't always turn out to be true.