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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- For television comedians, Idaho Republican senator Larry Craig's resignation last weekend in the wake of an airport bathroom gay sex scandal, and the icky circumstances surrounding his arrest itself, provided material akin to the Klondike gold rush in terms of quick laugh potential. Letterman, Leno and others were all over it.

David Letterman: "Several prominent Republicans are calling on Sen. Larry Craig to resign. And a couple are asking for his phone number."

Jay Leno: "This whole thing has to be very frustrating for the Republican Party. All these gay sex scandals and they still can't get any support from Hollywood."

Conan O'Brien: "Gay groups are calling Craig a hypocrite because Craig is a staunch opponent of gay marriage. Craig denied he's a hypocrite, saying, 'Hey, I wasn't trying to marry the cop in the bathroom.'"

The teeniest underlying details of a subject that once never would have made print were analyzed by mainstream media across the country. The arresting law enforcement officer, to support his case, insisted the senator had clearly indicated his interest with cadenced toe-tapping under the stall divider, a common and well-known signal, he said, of desire for homosexual relations in public toilets.

Well-known? Who knew? Just another reason for not buying an iPod. That wisecrack I thought so clever was apparently an obvious one. I made the comment to some colleagues on a weekday afternoon, got a couple of chuckles, and six hours later comedian Jimmy Kimmel made basically the same observation on TV, saying, "I'll never wear my iPod to the bathroom again."

At bottom, of course, there was nothing really funny about an incident that reminded voters they have displayed in recent years a propensity for sending to high office questionable public "servants" who spend more time pursuing personal desires and soaking up taxpayer largesse than they do working on the nation's business.

The incident actually occurred in early June, and Craig -- married and a father -- probably thought it had blown over, but voters are developing longer and longer memories.

Make no mistake, the Republicans will catch pluperfect hell for this come next election day. This scandal and others may or may not permeate the presidential race, but the GOP has to defend 22 of 34 Senate seats up for grabs in 2008 -- plus cover the won't-run-again decision of Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner. Voter resentment at the local level of scandalous behavior by their politicians -- in whatever questionable pursuit: money, sex, gifts, power, idiocy -- is sure to affect the makeup of that venerable chamber.

The powerful Republicans in Washington threw Craig, the previously respected senior senator from Idaho, off the back of the sled to the wolves of political fortune before he'd had a chance to explain himself. One minute he's expressing public regret for quietly pleading guilty to disorderly conduct in the men's room affair, and literally within hours he's summarily ejected from all his committee posts, with the acquiescence of GOP leadership.

As various public advocacy groups in Washington were quick to observe, this was not the usual template of behavior on Capitol Hill.

Observed Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, one of many corruption watchdog groups in the nation's capital: "A disorderly conduct plea requires a member to give up his committee assignment, but a full-fledged bribery investigation does not? Apparently, in the view of the Republican conference, there is almost nothing more serious than a member attempting to engage in gay sex."

The righteously outraged Ms. Sloan was referring, of course, to the burgeoning smelly situation in Alaska, where powerful U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican veteran of almost four decades in the upper chamber of the legislative branch, is tap dancing as fast as he can to avoid indictment in a runaway political corruption scandal involving oil field services giant VECO Corp.

It was only a year ago last Friday that FBI agents raided the offices of six Alaskan state legislators and VECO, searching for evidence that bought-and-paid-for Alaskan lawmakers were approving powderpuff legislation financially advantageous to VECO and Big Oil.

For months it seemed the probe would be limited to state officials. One former lawmaker there has been convicted of felonies, three more are scheduled for trial, and Alaskan voters became so fed up with run-of-the-mill politicians they elected a soccer-mom governor. Then a month ago, while he was in Washington, FBI agents raided the Alaska home of Ted Stevens, apparently seeking to connect a recent expensive renovation of the senator's dwelling (which doubled its size) to VECO and possible quid pro quo.

Before he returned to Washington last week, the crusty Stevens made a public comment in his defense that still has analysts of such things scratching their heads: "I've been involved in other investigations in my 39 years (in the Senate), maybe you don't know that, but I have been involved in them, and we weathered the storms."

Thus he offered squadoosh in terms of understandable comment on whether he succumbed to a bribe -- tarted up as home improvement -- from an influential commercial interest in his state. (Stevens' son Ben, former president of the Alaska State Senate, last week was named by a federal judge a co-conspirator in the VECO scheme. Even as a state senator, the younger Stevens worked -- right up until last year -- as a consultant for VECO, receiving $243,250 from the oil field firm over five years.)

Ms. Sloan also made mention of Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, whose Washington phone number was in the address book of a D.C. woman prosecutors said was running an escort service as a front for prostitution. Vitter said the number was his and apologized in July for "a very serious sin in my past" but otherwise seemed to survive the mini-scandal.

Sloan wants to know why Vitter and Stevens haven't been forced to give up their committee assignments, too. Call me cynical, but here's the explanation I believe.

When a U.S. senator dies or resigns or leaves office before the term expires, the governor of that senator's home state names a replacement. Craig was a sure handicap to GOP chances in the next election. Get rid of him quickly and let the Idaho governor -- a Republican named Butch Otter -- name a GOP replacement who could get in a little experience to brag about in re-running. Indeed, Otter on Saturday named his Republican lieutenant governor to go to Washington as Craig's replacement.

Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, the aforementioned soccer mom, is a nominal Republican but was elected on a reform platform and has demonstrated in-your-face liberal tendencies -- like calling for good, clean government and other outlandish ideas. GOP strategists in Washington don't trust her and fear she might name a Democrat to make a point if Stevens had to be replaced. Vitter, on the other hand, comes from a state with a governor who is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party and who obviously would name a Democrat if he were to retire.

This would leave Democrats even further in control of the upper house than their current slim one-vote margin. Such things are crucial in matters of policy, doctrine, White House relations and a million other things. It's the little decisions like this that change society.

Should reporters and other media members have jumped all over poor old Larry Craig's misfortune to be caught in a police entrapment sting that netted 41 other unsuspecting slobs so far, none of whom you or I can name?

Here's what Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the much-respected Poynter Institute in Florida (which studies media behavior), has to say when asked by Google News:

"I don't believe there is a direct correlation between private morality and public competency. Voters have said they care if a candidate has been faithful and loyal to the promises made in his personal life. So, if a poltician's private behavior makes his public image seem deceptive or honest, that may be important."

Two decades ago, McBride notes, "things would have been different. When professional journalists were the gatekeepers of information, it was easy to say, 'This has no bearing on his ability to do his job.' But there are no gatekeepers anymore. Part of what professional journalists do is sort out the truth. So rather than repeat rumors, I respect those who set out to determine the truth. ... When the truth is murky, the best service journalists can do is to make it more clear, provide more context, give citizens more good information."

Yes, the world was a simpler place 20 years ago, wasn't it? But there is no going back in this current culture. There is only more and more, where all things coverable are of a piece.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 4 2007