The political website Politico reported last week that on a congressional junket to Israel in 2011 several GOP freshman members of Congress, along with some aides and family members, took a late-night dip in the Sea of Galilee after knocking back a few drinks. Some participants reportedly jumped in fully clothed, some partially disrobed and one House member got naked for the plunge. All-in-all more than 20 people took part.
To which it is important to ask: So what? Even in terms of prurient interest this is PG-13. Besides, Congress’s truly scandalous acts are committed in business attire, cold sober, in the light of day.
Nonetheless, the election year reactions were fast and predictable. Democrats were aghast and judgmental. The skinny-dipping congressman, Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., was contrite and apologetic. Other Republicans were angry to be dealing with yet another story distracting voters from the issues they want to stress.
Colorado Democrats also tried to take advantage of the story by pointing out that Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, was on the trip. He was, as were some 60 people including 30 members of Congress. But there is not so much as a suggestion that Tipton had anything to do with the late-night partying — let alone skinny dipping. (And some of us are not at all happy with the Dems for leaving that imagery in our heads.)
There is also the idea that frivolously jumping into the Sea of Galilee — really just a lake — was somehow blasphemous or disrespectful in that it is there that the Bible tells us Jesus walked on water. But even a cursory reading of that passage (Matthew 14: 22-33) suggests that what was important about that event was not the water or the location.
Still, there is something compelling about any story involving elected officials, alcohol and sex. Late-night comics feasted for years after Democrat Wilbur Mills, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was caught cavorting in a fountain with a stripper who billed herself as Fanne Foxe “The Argentine Firecracker.”
It became even harder to take such episodes seriously after the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Only the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives could keep a straight face after his sometime companion’s last name became a euphemism for a particular act.
After all, humanity can be embarrassing and revealing, and the basis for a lot of humor. (Best online headline to date: “Junket drunk dunks his junk.”)
But it can also be distracting. At this stage of a national election accusations of scandal, impropriety, and misbehavior are to be expected. And a congressman stuck in adolescence is fair game.
At the same time, though, we have a major-party Senate candidate who would base women’s rights on an understanding of human reproduction that would embarrass a fifth grader, two ongoing wars — neither of which feature a clear objective — and two political parties unencumbered by arithmetic beyond that of the Electoral College. Any of those might be just a bit more important than who dropped his trousers.
Then again, one reason we have those real problems lies in the details of the skinny-dipping story. It is not that those involved were Republicans, but that they were all Republicans. There was a time when such junkets, like life in and around Washington in those days, involved members of both parties. Today, lawmakers live and work largely in echo chambers where only their own party’s catch-phrases reverberate.
But if the goal is actually to govern the opposite is needed. It is harder to demonize and demean opponents if you occasionally dine with them or run into them on the sidelines of a soccer game. Recognizing others as well-intentioned fellow Americans — although perhaps sometimes misguided — makes it easier to compromise and work together to get something done.
It might even make it less likely that anyone will take off his pants.