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Larry Craig in Focus: Can September Redeem an Awkward August?

By Ron Elving

August is normally the month when big-time Washington decision makers get out of town to relax and recharge. They spend time with normal people, some of whom may be family members. They remember what life is supposed to be about, and how to treat others with respect.

With luck, they return to their offices with their decency and reasonableness restored. That's one reason September is normally a pretty productive month in Washington.

But don't count on that happening this year. This August recess has been anything but a time-out for the power structure. The Washington wars have continued without interruption, and casualties have continued to mount.

As usual, a lot of the hostilities have focused on personalities and the arc of careers. Most recent of the victims is Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican who may become the first member of Congress to be almost literally laughed out of office.

Craig was arrested in a men's room in Minneapolis in June and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in August. He managed to evade media notice both times. But when he was finally found out, he became an object of national derision, not so much for his offense as for his defense.

Having been caught soliciting a male undercover officer, Craig was initially willing to plead guilty. But now he says he erred in doing so and was only trying to hide the incident from one newspaper that was hounding him.

There may have been a time when Craig's party would have rallied around — or at least dropped a cone of silence over — any embattled member of its ranks. That's what the GOP did when Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, apologized in July for his use of a D.C. "escort service." But there was no such forbearance for Craig, who must have made his colleagues regard Vitter's travails as the good old days.

Whether it was Craig's initial guilty plea or the gay angle or the distastefulness of the details, party sympathy deserted him. Fellow Republicans called on him to resign. The presidential candidate he was working for, Mitt Romney, called his actions "disgusting." It went downhill from there.

Incredibly, though, Craig's tumble was only one of the negative stories competing for media attention as August ground to a close.

As Craig's fate hung in the balance, the president was in New Orleans marking the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the catastrophe that blighted a city and battered his presidency. There was a clear sense about Mr. Bush's visit there at midweek that neither he nor the city had recovered.

Earlier in the week, the president had been forced to accept the resignation of his friend Alberto Gonzales, who was not only his attorney general but one of the longest-serving and most loyal of his Texas inner circle. The president had not only vowed to stand by Gonzales, he had proven steadfast after Gonzales performed disastrously before congressional committees. The loyalty was there to the end, in both directions. But, in the end, it was not enough.

Of course, hovering over these personnel matters are a host of issues that are not even close to being resolved. There is the war in Iraq, which the president remains determined to win. This insistence on persisting to victory will set the two parties at odds in September, no matter what we learn from the reports of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Sept. 11 (the reporting day chosen with both eyes on the calendar).

There are also the questions of warrantless surveillance, and of White House refusal to respond to subpoenas, and the threat to veto the bill expanding health insurance guarantees for children.

Atop all that, Congress in September will send the president a series of appropriations bills, most of which will exceed his line-of-death spending levels — probably triggering more vetoes.

In short, the chasm between executive and legislative branches yawns as wide as it has since the days of Richard Nixon.

So who can harbor hope that September will be better than August?

The president did not immediately name a successor to Gonzales, and the nomination he makes may offer a moment for redemption. If the person he names is the sort who can be swiftly confirmed, there will be a chance for a bridge across the chasm — at least on the health and legal issues.

As for the spending battles, or the challenge of Iraq, it is hard to see how the peace is made. And those who had hoped that a restful August might presage and enable a better September have already seen those hopes demolished.


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