Jonathan Zimmerman: Purging Larry Craig

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (Harvard University Press, 2006).]

Is Larry Craig gay?

I don't know the answer to that question, and I don't much care, either. But here's what I do know: Shaming Craig out of office because of his alleged homosexuality echoes some of the worst chapters of American history. And we should all be ashamed about it.

Craig was arrested in June at the Minneapolis airport, where an undercover police officer said the Idaho senator attempted to engage in gay sex. Last month, Craig pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct. Then the news hit the papers, and the wolves came out. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney fired Craig from his campaign, GOP Senate leaders threatened an ethics investigation, and Craig pledged to resign by the end of September.

Now he says he's reconsidering that decision, as well he should. Even if all the charges against him are true, Craig has done nothing to merit dismissal from government. And if you think otherwise, step back in time to the summer of 1950.

That's when a Senate subcommittee conducted its own 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 handshake," while another suspect had a "feminine complexion" and a "peculiar girlish walk." A woman drew accusations of lesbianism when a coworker noted her "mannish voice" and "odd-shaped lips."

Be on the lookout for close female friendships, a federal agent warned, particularly when the partners are far apart in age. The older woman is often "more vigorous and more masculine in her tone of voice and physical makeup," the agent wrote, while the younger one will be "gentler, softer, and more feminine."

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 Joseph 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 schools 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," 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," Lerner noted.

But Craig says he will fight, and more power to him. Today, of course, no one is suggesting that Craig undermined national security. Instead, Craig's critics simply say that his actions were "unbecoming" and "inappropriate" for someone in 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 drunk driver does.

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

But if you believe in gay rights without coming to Craig's defense, you're every bit the hypocrite that he is. It matters little that Craig has taken anti-gay positions in the past, or even that he denies being homosexual in the first place. 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 will compromise our best principles, and repeat our worst history.

Read entire article at San Francisco Chronicle

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 10/8/2007

Piblic men's room/toilet is a public place. To engage in any sexual, including homosexual, activities or solicit those in public place should, at the least be considered morally wrong, against interests of societal decency. Not already mentioning that in some states such actions are prosecutable by law.
Anyway, there is widely spread around the civilised world opinion (quite possibly - the wrong one) that a public official has to be held to a bit higher moral and social standards than common mortal.
You make the choice.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 9/14/2007

How is Larry Craig being purged and who is doing this purging?

Idaho Senator Larry Craig announced that he would resign from office after the media discovered that he had been pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in Minnesota. His fellow Republicans removed him from committees, but he was not dismissed from government as the author believes.

What does the Craig case have to do with the Congressional investigations in the 1950s? Craig was caught in a men's room by a local police sting operation. He was not investigated for being gay by a federal taskforce.

marte hall - 9/10/2007

O.K. so now I'm once again properly signed in.

I confess I couldn't understad Tim Matthewson's post but I imagine that's more my problem than anything intrinsic in what Mr. Matthewson was saying.

For the rest, my simple thank you to Jonathan Zimmerman. I thoroughly agree with the points he makes and very much appreciate the historical context he details. [I'm old. I remember those days :-( !] Thank you Margaret Lavinia Anderson, too. Your post pretty much parallels the only one other blog post I've ventured on this topic.

I'm glad to be able to be here at HNN again.

marte hall - 9/10/2007

This will be a short comment. I had misplaced my file/record of my user name and password for signing in. Rick has just instructed me how to "get back here", so once I see whether this worked I'll try to say something that might be worth anyone's time to read.


Margaret Lavinia Anderson - 9/8/2007

FINALLY some one has made this obvious point!
The only other commentator to come close to it is Gail Collins. Here is a man being driven out of office because he tapped his foot and waved his hand. Since "we all know" what that means, we know that he was hoping to have sex. Maybe yes, maybe no. It is none of our business! Thank you, Jonathan Zimmermann.

Tim Matthewson - 9/8/2007

The last words of Mr. Zimmerman's comments sound like gay baiting! Perhaps Mr. Zimmerman is gay.
"To me this article is an abuse of history, yet it is being presented by History News. How ironic."

Tim J Pancoast - 9/8/2007

I am a bit dissapointed by this article, especially given that it is appearing in a respectable publication.

I understand that it is an oppinion peice, but I expect that even an oppinion, when published by the History News Network would use correct and accurate facts.

Larry Craig resigned from Mitt Romney's campaign, he wasn't fired from it.

I will admit that I dissagree with many of the oppinions expressed in this editorial. I feel that the author attempts to make their case by taking things out of context, under the guise of providing a historical context related to the Larry Craig matter. To me this article is an abuse of history, yet it is being presented by History News. How ironic.