James Gill of The Times-Picayune is probably the region’s most talented political columnist, yet he’s not immune from the occasional howler. Consider this excerpt from his Sunday column:
A strong case could be made that [Sen. David] Vitter is neither so weird nor so slippery as [Rep. Anthony] Weiner, who, when questioned about pictures of bulging underpants distributed on his Twitter account, lied through his teeth for several days until he was finally forced to come clean.
Fates preserve us! If lying about tumescent tweets for a week is the benchmark for “weird and slippery,” how can Gill possibly discount Vitter? Our junior U.S. senator is the king of weird slipperiness, if not slippery weirdness. Vitter lied through his teeth for nearly a decade about his chronic and illegal whore-chasing, yet neither the local media, nor fellow Republicans, nor Louisiana voters ever forced him to come clean. He’s still in office. Let’s see Weiner pull that off! I invite anyone to make “a strong case” for Vitter over Weiner. Please make that case, right here, I beg you. No, I double dog dare ya.
The only way Vitter could get weirder at this point is if he suddenly resigned out of respect to the voters, and appeared on Edwin Edwards’ reality TV show, as the “frenemy” everyone loves to hate.
All these years I’ve been fascinated with Vitter’s career precisely because he was so weird and slippery. I hope I haven’t been wrong all along. Let’s review some highlights from the Senator’s career, and see if a piker like Weiner could compare.
You’ll recall that in the ’90’s Speaker Newt Gingrich led the House of Representatives as it investigated President Bill Clinton for basically everything under the sun, until they finally found something that would stick. At the time Gingrich was in the midst of a years long affair with a former staffer decades younger than him. The GOP lost seats in the 1998 midterms, and Gingrich decided to step down. Later, when his personal failures were revealed, he blamed the adultery that “happened” to him on his passionate love of country. It drove him to “work far too hard.” Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston was ready to seize the Speakership, when Larry Flynt revealed that Livingston had also been having an affair. Livingston stepped down because the GOP didn’t want a wife-cheater advocating impeachment of the President. At the time, State Rep. David Vitter was eyeing Livingston’s newly opened seat, and declared that Livingston’s decision made a “very powerful” argument for Pres. Bill Clinton to step down, as well.
In the runoff, Vitter’s opponent was the late David Treen, a former governor of Louisiana who had secured all the big name endorsements, including Gov. Mike Foster. But Vitter had a trick up his sleeve. He cut a deal with the third-place finisher David Duke in which the former Ku Klux Klansman came out publicly for his nemesis, Treen, in order to depress African-American voter turnout. (Duke’s hardcore supporters knew the “endorsement” was a sham, and had no intention of supporting Treen, a moderate.)
Vitter’s taste for strange bedfellows did not end with Duke. Upon arrival in Washington, he promptly began calling a D.C. escort service. It’s naive to think this was his first encounter with prostitutes, as Vitter now tries to claim. Indeed, former French Quarter sex worker Wendy Cortez said that he’d previously been a client of hers on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an 11 month stretch. (Cortez said Vitter told her his enemies stressed him out, and that was why he needed to see her.)
Vitter advocated term limits, because his eyes were always set on higher office. In 2003 he was inclining towards a run for governor against Gov. Foster’s protege, Bobby Jindal, when rumors about his enthusiasm for local prostitutes began circulating in right wing circles. The buzz got only louder, thanks to talk radio callers close to the story and state Republican Party committee member Vincent Bruno. (Interestingly, Bruno was David Duke’s “spiritual advisor” before Vitter succeeded Duke as District 81 state rep.) Vitter abruptly pulled out of the governor’s race and confided “the rest of the story” to The Gambit’s Clancy Dubos. Vitter said the “stress” of Washington had caused marriage difficulties, and that he and his wife were in counseling. (Also, his enemies were vile no-goodniks who liked to spread horrible rumors.)
Evidently all healed and ready for action, in 2004 Vitter decided to run for the U.S. Senate. He was doing a talk radio program with (fellow De La Salle High School alum and now U.S. Attorney) Jim Letten, when Vitter learned that someone named the “Flaming Liberal” was in the call-in queue. He promptly excused himself from the interview to make a “phone call.” (How’s that for slippery?) Vitter returned to his microphone, thinking the Flaming Liberal had signed off after asking Letten some questions. But, no. Unbeknownst to Vitter, the Flaming Liberal was still on the line. He confronted the wannabe sanator about his affiliations with a known French Quarter prostitute. Sitting next to Letten, Vitter told the radio audience:
Unfortunately, that’s just crass Louisiana politics, now that I am running for the Senate. I have made that clear that it is all completely untrue… And, it’s obviously politically motivated.
Before votes were cast, Vitter addressed these “rumors” of marital infidelity once again, when he met with a group of Christian conservative pastors including Louisiana Family Forum founder Gene Mills. Vitter assured the reverends he had no “skeletons in his closet.” (Interestingly, one of the multiple sources who confirmed Vitter’s hypocrisy in this meeting was Pastor Grant Storms, the homophobic videographer of French Quarter gays who would later be arrested after two women said they saw him fondling himself in a van overlooking a Lafreniere Park playground.)
With Louisiana prostrate after Katrina and the Federal Flood, Vitter still found time to highlight why gay marriage posed an existential threat to the Republic. In 2007, as Vitter further distracted himself by heading up former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential effort in the South, word got out about Vitter’s cell number popping up on the D.C. Madam’s phone list. He immediately sent out an email apology to supporters, informing them he’d already been forgiven by God, and went into hiding for a week. Further allegations surfaced about his dalliances in the French Quarter with Cortez, and also with a Canal Street madam. Vitter emerged from seclusion just in time to interrupt Jindal’s campaign announcement for governor. Press cameras and tape recorders whirred as the senator acknowledged a “serious” (and singular) “sin,” and claimed that the “New Orleans stories” were untrue, the implication being that what happened in D.C. had ended in D.C..
Vitter, still stoutly refusing to do the honorable thing and resign, then got another weirdly lucky break. Named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Washington prostitution case, he reportedly was preparing to stay mum and take the fifth amendment, when D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey committed suicide and the trial was canceled.
Christian conservative Tony Perkins toyed with running against Vitter in 2010, but decided against it, and Vitter, the Senate’s most besmirched member, sailed through the GOP primary without so much as a headwind. Even the religious leaders before whom Vitter had “lied through his teeth” failed to call him out, mindful, perhaps, of the $100,000 earmark he arranged for the Louisiana Family Forum’s tireless advocacy of better “science” (read: creationism). Gene Mills is the president of LFF, which is a sister organization to Tony Perkins’ Family Resource Council.
By now it was indisputably clear that Vitter had lied to the voters of Louisiana, to journalists and to religious leaders about his criminal activity with prostitutes, and yet his GOP colleagues — the selfsame solons who drove Idaho Republican Sen. Larry “wide stance” Craig out of office with such ruthless efficiency — applauded Sen. Vitter when he finally returned to D.C..
Vitter’s GOP supporters also gave him a standing ovation at last year’s meeting of the Southern Republican Leadership Council, and, with the help of race-baiting commercials about how tough he’d be on illegal immigrants, he was re-elected in 2010.
Is all that “weird and slippery” enough for you, or do we need to review some of the stranger allegations about Vitter’s sexual predilections that are available in the not-so-distant corners of the Internet?
The Weiner flare up is part of a regular pattern that’s occurred over the past four years. Whenever scandalous revelations arise about politicians — Larry Craig, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, to name just a few — a national conversation about these disgraced figures follows, along with general puzzlement as to why deeply conservative and Christian Louisiana still abides Vitter. As Gill noted in his column, a small religious group was worried about things like hypocrisy and principle, so they used the recent Weiner kerfuffle as an opportunity to call for Vitter’s head. They should not have bothered. Louisianans will let Vitter ignore any resignation pressures and act like he’s already answered the tough questions about his behavior, which he hasn’t. There’s even an odd meme developing on Internet forums that implies Vitter addressed the matter quickly and completely, as if he didn’t lie about it for the better part of a decade.
How does he get away with it? Vitter is a great anti-Obama grandstander, and a tireless advocate for those scrappy underdogs known as Big Oil. Plus he protects the state from the menace of undocumented workers, as he did the gay menace before that.
The one issue about Vitter that I’ve mentioned over the years and thought would resonate among conservatives is the blackmail argument: that a man as morally compromised as Vitter is an easy target for manipulation by people even more unscrupulous than he is. We certainly heard a lot of that during the Clinton scandals. To his credit, Tulane graduate and “blogger provocateur” Andrew Breitbart recently gave voice to this concern: He said he wasn’t “a fan” of Vitter’s and that “I tend to think all these guys that behave this way are putting themselves in positions to be blackmailed.”
As I’ve said before, you don’t have to read too far into the events reviewed above to see that’s probably already happened:
I don’t think it’s crazy to think that Vitter has been quasi-blackmailed in the past. As conservatives reminded us ten years ago, Bill Clinton’s affairs made him vulnerable to blackmail, and that’s dangerous… Do you really think the highly ambitious Vitter abruptly pulled out of the early horserace for Governor (in ’02) merely because he wanted to take more marriage counseling classes? Or was there more to it? [James] Gill himself has written about politicians who threatened Vitter with “dark secrets”. If memory serves, Sheriff Harry Lee threatened to call a press conference just prior to Vitter removing himself from consideration for Governor in 02. (Lee made similar noises to Vitter in 99.) Since Vitter has not been candid about what he’s done, it’s possible that he might be vulnerable to similar (soft) blackmail attempts in the future.
In short, a strong case can be made that Vitter’s inhuman slipperiness — both in and out of trouble — is tremendously weird.
I’d love to see Vitter resign and share the small screen with his former nemesis, Edwin Edwards. That would be “must see TV” in my book. For the first half of his career Vitter portrayed himself as the clean “reformer” against corrupt and immoral Democrats like Edwards and Clinton. Now that his troubled personal life has been (partially) exposed, he should follow the powerful examples of Livingston and Gingrich and look for ways to serve mankind without encumbering an important public office. Surely Vitter isn’t the only ambitious Louisiana politician qualified to constantly blame Obama and immigrants for our troubles. Why not give Reps. Steve Scalise or Jeff Landry a shot at it? If Vitter would take a break from politics and do a reality show with the Silver Fox, it would be vastly entertaining. Call it “The Last Whore Ride,” or something.
l can’t think of anything weirder or more slippery than that.