Larry Craig's Dry Hot American Summer

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

Most people don't know from Idaho. Potatoes, they think. Or "How is Utah?" they will ask, five years after you moved there.

So, on August 20, when Governor "Butch" Otter officially declared Idaho an inferno, the Gem State started making headlines. Five percent of the state's 83,574 square miles were aflame. Massive wildfires raged everywhere Idahoans like to go on the weekends. In the Boise, Salmon-Challis, Payette, Clearwater and Sawtooth National Forests, weekend hikers reached mountain summits to take in stunning apocalyptic panoramas. In the distance, plumes of ominous smoke dotted the horizon like mushroom clouds.

When the Castle Rock Fire hit the Sun Valley area, the cornerstone of Idaho tourism, the tenor changed. <em>The New York Times ran an odd story about rich people's insurance policies on second homes, ostensibly ignoring the fact that a historical town and thousands of regular people's livelihoods were at risk.

Things could not, it seemed, get any worse.

Then, with the suddenness and unpredictability singular to firestorms, Senator Larry Craig was outed for gay cruising an airport bathroom.

The day Craig's story went public, Sun Valley's Bald Mountain caught fire.

It had been a quiet weekend before a cold front shouldered into southern Idaho last Sunday, whipping winds and igniting brittle timber on the backside of the world-class ski mountain. Then, with the $12 million Seattle Ridge Lodge at risk, the resort revved up the snow guns -- an unintended sprinkler system -- and wetted down the tinderbox as fire crews surrounded the mountaintop lodge and fought off three separate fire advances.

Had he faced the reality of his own firestorm, Sen. Craig's week could have gone far smoother. He could have, like former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, acknowledged his burning desires. But despite opening Tuesday's press conference by thanking everyone "who came out today," Craig's tactic was outraged denial.

"Fire!? You are mistaken. There is no fire here."

The man is nothing if not consistent. After his June 11, um, indiscretion, Craig said nothing to family, friends or staff until Roll Call broke the story this week, 77 days after the arrest.

It was a summer of uneasy calm for the state's senior senator. Dan Popkey, Idaho's hardest hitting reporter, was hot on a 27-year long trail of rumors and allegations circulated amongst Boise press and politicos. An unforgiving world was closing in on Craig. One misstep could spark disaster.

Or one errant game of footsie.

The Senator contends it was a "wide stance" on the throne that led to the Minnesota misunderstanding. But it's difficult not to see the arrest as the logical end in a run of increasing recklessness by a man incapable of confronting his sexuality.

Last October, in the midst of Republican Mark Foley's public pederasty scandal, gay activist blogger Mike Rogers went on a crusade. The problem: family-values-spouting politicians rogering anonymous men around D.C. The solution: outing hypocritical bible thumpers as craven sex addicts. Rogers found a man who alleged an encounter with Craig in a Union Station bathroom. The man went on national radio saying he could identify Craig's babymaker in a pants-down, senatorial line-up. (Hey look, it's Olympia Snowe!) But the anonymity of the thing reeked of tabloid trash, and activist Rogers' attempt to nail Craig fell limp.

After the 2006 elections, the Idaho Statesman set Popkey on Craig's trail. According to Idaho Democratic Party spokesman and former Boise newsman Chuck Oxley, "Dan [Popkey] disappeared and we all knew what he was working on."

This winter and spring, Popkey asked a lot of people if Larry Craig was gay. Some said yes. Others said no. Rumors had followed the man since college. The months of research notwithstanding, Popkey's story was far from watertight, legally or journalistically. The bulldog journalist's attempted coup de grace was shelved and Craig, it seemed, had survived another spot fire.

Which makes it all the more astounding that, under such flammable conditions, the Senator who once called Bill Clinton "a bad boy, a naughty boy," solicited sex from an undercover cop.

Craig didn't have long to go before the next election cycle. At that point, with dry fuels collecting around him and clouds gathering overhead, he could have gracefully slipped into an obscure retirement. Fire Island, Senator?

Meanwhile, the Castle Rock Fire in Sun Valley waxes and wanes with the weather. Most are saying it won't be totally extinguished until falling snow snuffs it later this fall. These days, all fire crews can do is work to protect homes and lives.

Maybe being a closeted gay senator from Idaho is a lot like fighting a forest fire. You are at the mercy of your nature. A burst of flames sends hot embers aloft, sparking spot fires in public places and threatening livelihoods. Swift actions, like controlled back burns, are needed to control the damage. But sometimes, when the hot Western winds whip, a fire will run its own destructive course.