Trapped in the Political Closet

What must have gone through Larry Craig’s mind that day in June, when he looked down to the bottom of the wall separating his stall from the next, expecting to see a reciprocation of his signaled desire, and instead saw that policeman’s badge? “I can get out of this,” he may have said to himself. Or perhaps, “So this is where it ends, finally.”

Of course, we can’t say for sure that Craig was in that restroom hoping to get some action, or if he was the victim of one of the most extraordinary coincidences in the history of western civilization. But whatever lies in the recesses of Craig’s heart, he probably didn’t expect the ferocious speed with which his Republican colleagues would toss him off, shaking frantically to rid themselves of the scent of what many of them no doubt regard as perversion. In a matter of days, a career of decades came to an abrupt end as millions learned of Craig’s intimate secrets both shocking and banal, and a tidal wave of snickers, contempt, and ridicule washed him from public life.

The real surprise may be that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. The politician’s life is uniquely public, even more so than those of other kinds of celebrities. If most of us saw Julia Roberts or Peyton Manning in an airport, we'd just say, "Hey, there's that famous person." Going up to talk to them might not occur to us. And if it did, the conversation would likely be a brief one, consisting of telling the famous person how terrific we think they are. But if we see our congressperson or senator, not only might we approach them, what we have to say would as likely be a complaint as praise, and we'd expect them to listen patiently as we deliver a piece of our mind.

So politicians need to be nice to everyone, an obligation that for all but the most pathologically sunny of characters must be nothing short of tortuous at times. It’s no wonder, then, that so many elected officials, even some who couldn’t seem more friendly, are absolute beasts to those who work for them. Once the door to the office closes, the cameras shut off, and the reporters are no longer in earshot, their egos and pent-up rage find outlets in unreasonable demands, cruel treatment, even abuse of their staff.

But even for those who are kind to their underlings, the politician’s life becomes its own kind of closet. Needing always to be “on” in public, they measure their words so as not to give offense, they claim enthusiasm when they feel none, they feign concern when they couldn’t care less. These little daily dishonesties may be merely heightened versions of what all of us enact to keep social interactions lubricated and purring along smoothly, but in the politician’s case the need is unceasing, retreat seldom an option, the line of constituents and colleagues and reporters wanting your time and watching for missteps nearly endless.

So their public selves are always artificial in some way, leading more than a few to carve out a hidden self which they can keep as their own. And for this, we citizens have no one but ourselves and our other set of representatives -- the news media -- to blame. In the end, the claim that what we really want in our politicians is “authenticity” is as phony as the claim that we all hate negative campaigning. We don’t want them to be themselves, we want them to be exaggerated versions of the way we’d like to see ourselves: overflowing with integrity, glistening with insight and common sense, fortified with unflagging courage, pure in all things yet admirably modest. Yet time and again they reveal themselves to be simply human, much to our disappointment.

When it comes to the sad saga of Larry Craig, many have scratched their heads and asked, why risk everything for a quickie in a men’s room? Why would a man with so much to lose take that kind of chance? We might put it down to the awesome power of desire, the sexual urge written so firmly into the DNA of every cell in our bodies that it cannot be denied or suppressed for long, no matter what our political ideology or better judgment might recommend. But there is another explanation, one James Hannaham offered last week in Salon. “Most homosexual men spend our formative years in the closet, and once we come out, we tend to deny that closetedness has its pleasures -- and damned juicy ones, truth be told,” Hannaham writes. “Having a secret, perhaps double, life gives you a sense of importance, of life as drama, a sense you'll probably relish if you find yourself elected governor of New Jersey. Sex feels otherworldly, forbidden and scary, like you've gone so deep into the closet that you've arrived in Narnia.”

Most of our lives lack any particular sense of drama, sexual or otherwise. We go to our jobs, spend time with our families, pursue our particular happiness as the years go by without wondering whether tales of our exploits will be recounted in admiring tones or biographers will spend years plumbing the complexities of our time on the earth.

And even senators, despite the trappings of drama -- the proximity to power, the deference with which they are treated, the fact that they walk each day into an office decorated with pictures of themselves on the walls -- experience, in truth, little drama to speak of. What do senators do? They talk, and they listen, and then they press a little button to register their opinions, and then they talk some more. This isn’t to say they can’t accomplish great things, but most of their days are not charged with adrenaline, danger, or the flush of victory and the risk of defeat.

The Republican Party of which Craig was such an honored member can abide many things -- dishonesty, incompetence, corruption, even a taste for prostitutes. All manner of sins can be forgiven, so long as the sinner proclaims his fealty to the cause. But there are some lines that may not be crossed. Over the last few years they have invested so deeply in anti-gay bigotry that they had no choice but to cast Craig from the Republican temple, and right quick. The party is running on culture war fumes. If there’s one thing they’ve worked to make sure the public knows, it’s that the GOP is the party that hates homosexuality, and if you do too, you’d better not cast your ballot for anyone else.

It isn’t as though his GOP colleagues didn’t know about Larry Craig already, though. Of course they did, just as they knew about Mark Foley, and just as they know about other prominent gay Republicans, including the longtime congressman recently denied a top spot in the leadership of the GOP caucus because, it was said at the time, many of his colleagues found him too “moderate.” They are allowed to be who they are, just as Craig was, so long as the public remains ignorant and the Republican brand remains intact. Their closets are guarded closely by their fellow conservatives, with the understanding that should the door begin to open and enough people peer inside, they will be expelled without hesitation, years of loyal service notwithstanding.

If nothing else, Craig will now be relieved of the need to maintain his public persona, to be nice to everyone, to pretend that his concerns are exactly those of whomever he happens to be talking to. And a decade or two from now, when America no longer consigns some of its own to second-class citizenship because of their sexual orientation, his party will begin to renounce its current behavior, its encouragement and exploitation of fear and hatred. Much like Craig himself at that embarrassing, futile press conference, they will proclaim against all evidence that they are not what they seem, that their own actions never really occurred, and that their hearts are pure. We’ll see how forgiving the public is when that day comes.

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