July 18 2007
The Vitter Affair in Perspective
There's a joke, less funny than true, that puts most of the blame for the slowness of the state's recovery following the 2005 hurricanes on that woman, Monica Lewinsky. Had she not encouraged that easily tempted president, there would have been no impeachment proceedings, Hustler Magazine would not have exposed the extramarital affair of Congressman Bob Livingston, R-La., he would not have resigned, and then, seven years later, the 17th Street Canal levee would have broken in the district of the Speaker of the House.
Had he not been toppled, Livingston, then in line to be elected to the top leadership position, would have seen to it that Louisiana got all the federal relief money it needed the first time it asked, instead of trying for a third time, as is the case now.
That sad exercise of "what if" gives some perspective to Sen. David Vitter's troubles following his being linked to prostitutes in Washington and New Orleans. Compared to the effect of Livingston's departure, this is nothing. In Washington, it has provided a Congress fatigued by war debates and corruption scandals with the summer diversion of a good old-fashioned sex scandal. Even accusations that he is a hypocrite, given his past ringing defense of traditional marriage, are unfair, since married men going to prostitutes is as traditional as the institution itself.
Sure, it reflects poorly on his state, but what's new? As far as checks and balances on powerful Louisiana politicians go, the FBI polices the Democrats while Hustler takes care of Republicans.
Vitter won't go the way of Livingston, whose consolation prize is a multi-million-dollar income for lobbying his former colleagues. With less than three years service and now in the minority party, Vitter has not achieved the status that warrants a serious call for his resignation, though the Louisiana Democratic Party is taking a stab at it.
Most ambitious young politicians start out thinking they could be president one day. Their defining moment comes when they realize they won't be. That's Vitter's lot now as a former rising star. Republican leaders in the Senate are likely to pass him over for plum committee assignments, preferring to invest in undamaged goods. Taking a seat on the back bench is hardly the impetus to spring one out of bed in the morning.
Oddly, Vitter's indiscretion seemed to make bigger waves in the state than did Livingston's fall at the time, because the latter was overshadowed by the impeachment of the president. Also, though almost speaker, Livingston was less a commanding figure than Vitter in state politics, where the greater impact of this scandal will be felt.
Starting with Congressman Bobby Jindal, who fortunately scheduled his first statewide campaign swing for this week instead of last Monday, the Republican frontrunner has lost a mighty weapon in Vitter. The senator was set to run bruising interference for Jindal, allowing the candidate to stick to the high road. That loss could spell a crucial difference for Jindal come October if he is scrapping to hold off opponents to snare a victory in the primary.
Also, don't look for Vitter to be out campaigning for Republican legislative candidates this fall, despite having made winning a GOP majority in the state House of Representatives his pet project.
Next year, Vitter might be back to close to his old self, in time to lead the GOP charge against Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election bid. Or perhaps not. As it appears now, she will be able to focus on her future opposition without having to take much lip from her junior colleague.
Yet, his detractors would be wise not to count out the tenacious Vitter as a force again in Louisiana politics, though for now he will assume a less combative role.
He's back on the job, remorseful but chin up, focusing anew on the state's recovery as part of the effort to recover his own career. But as with storm-ravaged communities, the Vitter restoration will be a long, hard slog, and though things will get better for him, they will never be the same.