“One would hope… that when an officeholder commits serious offenses, the negative reaction of the citizenry would make it impossible for him to govern effectively,” a Tulane and Loyola Law adjunct professor wrote in the pages of The Times-Picayune in October of 1998. At the time, Congress was deciding whether or not to impeach President Bill Clinton, and the law professor argued that Clinton, however effective he may have been as an executive, was nonetheless unfit to govern. The problem, he contended, was about Clinton’s “moral fitness.”
“President Clinton, having had a workplace affair with an intern in the Oval Office complex, having directly and repeatedly lied about it to the American people, having committed perjury on numerous subjects on at least two occasions and having probably obstructed justice and tampered with witnesses has not created a crisis of leadership,” he writes. “But Congress, because it has carefully and soberly taken up the impeachment question in light of above, has. This kind of thinking is perhaps the most compelling evidence that some meaningful action must be taken against the president. If none is, his leadership will only further drain any sense of values left to our political culture.”
The law professor was well-known in the New Orleans area, because, at the time, he also served as a state representative. His name was David Vitter, and less than a decade later, he became ensnared in his own high-profile sex scandal. Vitter’s 1998 column had been flagged before, including in 2007, and portions of it appear on the Facebook page of GumboPAC, the political action committee organized to ensure the election of “Anybody But Vitter.” But the physical copy of the letter, which is attached below and which no longer appears anywhere else (but here) online, was uncovered on microfilm at a state library by a member of Scott Angelle’s campaign. Angelle referenced the letter in a recent debate, and I requested a copy.
This is important. Vitter’s name, after all, was spotted on the call log of the D.C. Madam, Deborah Jean Palfrey, and he had apparently purchased the services of prostitutes in between votes on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
On the same day Bobby Jindal announced his candidacy for Louisiana governor and only a few miles away, David Vitter, alongside his wife Wendy, stood before a swarm of cameras and admitted to committing a “serious sin.” In the years since, Sen. Vitter has never explained what, exactly, he meant, and because the D.C. Madam committed suicide before sentencing, he has never had to.
If you care to know, you can read every excruciating detail of President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, issued a $40 million, 445 page report with more than 3,000 pages of supporting documents. Ironically, the exhaustive Starr Report and the eventual willingness of President Clinton to own up and apologize for his affair actually bolstered his popularity. Ability to govern, it turns out, does matter. Clinton was understandably reluctant to publicly reveal, to the entire world, lurid details about his sex life, and helped coin the word Clintonian after telling a prosecutor who had asked if there “is” a sexual relationship between him and Lewinsky, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” But he survived.
Whereas we may know way too much about the allegations against Clinton, we know almost nothing about the crimes committed by David Vitter. At a recent debate in New Orleans, a panelist asked the candidates if they had ever violated Title 14. David Vitter, the former law professor and current lawmaker, said he did not know what Title 14 was; it’s the entire criminal code of the state of Louisiana. He then suggested that the question itself was unfair and accused his opponents of planting it in order to embarrass him. Apparently, it is now unfair to ask candidates for the highest office in Louisiana if they’ve ever broken the law, a “gotcha question.”
During the last several weeks, Vitter has continually refused to participate in televised debates. If you live in metro Baton Rouge, the second largest media market in the state, with more than 800,000 citizens, you’ve likely never seen Vitter in a single televised debate, unless you decided to stream them online. It is remarkable that the people who live in the city Vitter hopes to call home, the state’s capital, have effectively been blacked out from the two or three televised debates Vitter attended.
David Vitter claims that he cannot attend most debates due to his work in D.C., a specious justification from a man who has the sixth worst attendance rate in the Senate. The more obvious explaination, as Tom Aswell observed yesterday, is that Vitter is doing his absolute best to avoid uncomfortable questions about his scandals: his involvement with the D.C. Madam, his former aide Brent Fuhrer, and the persistent rumors about his relationships with certain prostitutes, some of whom have made themselves publicly known.
When a young reporter attempted to ask Vitter about one of these scandals, shortly after Vitter qualified for governor, the reporter was immediately fired (a story I actually broke on Twitter). The Vitter campaign claimed to me and to others that the reporter had pushed over and essentially assaulted a young woman, while chasing after the Senator. There is no truth to that, however. The reporter brought along a videographer, and, according to two independent sources, the video (which has not yet been made public but which these sources have reviewed) does not show the reporter being physically aggressive with anyone.
The Vitter campaign simply does not want to answer any of these questions, and most troublingly, they seem to be capable of either directing or intimidating members of the media.
In less than a week, Louisiana voters will decide whether or not they want Vitter to lead the state as governor.
David Vitter, by his own admission and according to his logic, is morally unfit to govern, and if elected, he would not be able to govern effectively.
He’s right. If not, to quote David Vitter himself, “his leadership will only further drain any sense of values left to our political culture.”
On Saturday, Jason Brad Berry published a bombshell interview with Wendy Ellis, a former prostitute who claims she gave birth and then put up for adoption a baby allegedly fathered by Sen. Vitter. I have been told to expect more content in the days to come– more of the original interview, more bombshells, more corroboration from others. Ellis’s story, at least as it stands right now, appears to be unraveling due to legitimate questions about her record and, more importantly, about her timeline, but these discrepancies could be explained. In an update to his original post, Berry provides a new video of Ellis describing what occurred after she gave birth, and in this video, she readily acknowledges her incarceration.[vimeo https://vimeo.com/142758813]
Credibility issues aside, it is worth noting: There are only two people who know the full and complete truth about their relationship, David Vitter and Wendy Ellis. One of them has passed a lie detector test and subjected herself to an hour-long, personal on-camera interview, and the other one has only issued vague denials through his campaign staff. Ellis’s story may have been unraveling, but there is a good reason to believe it could be stitched back up in the next few days. To be sure, her credibility will likely remain suspect, but the additional content should, at the very least, bolster her claim that Vitter was a client. And this would be enormously problematic for Vitter, a man who has denied “those New Orleans rumors” and whose campaign emphatically and categorically denied Ellis’s story. Indeed, the only reason Ellis’s story has been discounted (though not discredited) is because someone, presumably with Vitter’s campaign, leaked a handwritten letter she filed with an Arkansas judge in 2001, seeking lenience for a 10-year jail sentence for violating the terms of her probation.
The Vitter campaign, in other words, had conducted extensive opposition research on a former prostitute, which apparently is something you have to do if you’re David Vitter.
Wendy Ellis acknowledges her faults: She was once addicted to drugs; she was guilty of forgery; she hung around the wrong crowd. But she appears earnest in her desire to improve her condition. Notably, she denies ever being an escort, directly contradicting what she told Berry, but Vitter, at the same time, was telling the entire state of Louisiana how devoted he was to conservative family values. There is a good chance both of them were lying.
The most Vitter has ever said on the subject was when he admitted, with his wife by his side, to committing “a serious sin,” and then he handed the microphone to his wife Wendy, who accused the media of invading her children’s privacy (there is no evidence of that either). Quoting The Shreveport Times (July 7, 2007):
Vitter’s wife, in characteristic prosecutorial overstatement, created the impression that the media had camped out in their front yard and at their church and had followed them around. There are several problems with that: first, it was the Vitters, who chose to hunker in the bunker, hiding for a week, raising questions about what was going on and where they were. Next, the media doesn’t camp out on the front lawn. Media trucks stay on public property on the street. Also, where were the pictures of the Vitter’s during their week in hiding? There were none.
Vitter, while away in Washington, has been largely successful at avoiding scrutiny over his past scandals, but the issue persists in Louisiana. And it will continue to persist until and unless Vitter finally explains himself in detail. This is not an outrageous request: He wants to lead the state of Louisiana, and he refuses to explain the most important and troubling aspect of his entire record. Wendy Ellis- and perhaps some of those close to her- may have some credibility issues and may not have accurately detailed her relationship with Vitter, at least in the videos Berry has uploaded so far. But Vitter also has severe credibility issues.
He lived a double-life for years. In public, he pretended to be a moral crusader repulsed by the notion that the president had a consensual relationship with a young woman in White House, but in private, Vitter was ordering prostitutes while ambling around the United States Congress. Ellis claims Vitter paid her $5,000 a month. Clinton gave Lewinsky a copy of “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman.
If Vitter is elected governor, these stories won’t fizzle out; they’ll multiply, and they’ll create an enormous distraction.
I know there are some who would have preferred Vitters’s opponents stay away from the 2007 D.C. prostitution scandal. They argue that, ironically, renewed interest in the scandal may make Vitter seem more likable, as if he is the victim of a vast conspiracy. To be clear, I do not believe this, and, in fact, I think the emphasis on Vitter’s scandal and his hypocrisy are the primary reason he has taken such a dramatic slide in the polls.
Regardless, if he really wants to become governor, the David Vitter of 2015 needs to explain to the David Vitter of 1998 why he was once so wrong, and the David Vitter of 2015 needs to be open and honest about his past; he doesn’t have to go into graphic detail, of course. If he cannot tell the truth to the people of Louisiana, lies will continue to rush in, and Louisiana will, once again, be paralyzed by a governor who cares more about the accumulation of power and his own celebrity than the people for whom he was elected to serve.