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The Vitter End 

"He hath given his empire

Up to a whore."

-- William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

U.S. Sen. David Vitter spent the better part of the last three decades positioning himself to run for president of the United States. Within the past few months, having won the role of Rudy Giuliani's lead dog in the South and among social conservatives, he actually stood on the threshold of realizing his life-long dream. He was seriously talked about as a possible vice-presidential running mate on a Giuliani ticket.

After three decades of meticulous, obsessive planning for this moment in history, Vitter's dream came crashing down in less than a week.

People who know Vitter well understand just how precipitous the 46-year-old junior senator's fall from grace has been. This is not just a sex scandal. He has not just been exposed as a rank hypocrite. This is an epic downfall of Shakespearean proportions. For Vitter, who had spent virtually every waking moment of his adult life contemplating a run for president, the revelation that he was a client of the so-called D.C. Madam is the end of life as he knows it.

It thus is no surprise that he went into hiding after his "admission" last Monday. As of Friday, he still had not showed up for work, missing key votes in the Senate and fueling speculation as to his whereabouts and his mental state.

Considering the fervor with which Vitter, once a poster boy for the GOP's Religious Right faction, championed the crusade against gays, adultery and even sex itself, he is truly hoist by his own petard. The Bard could not have scripted it better.

But, as tragic figures go, Vitter evokes little pity -- particularly among his fellow politicians, many of whom privately describe him as shamelessly self-righteous, blindly ambitious and ruthlessly calculating. The legions of Vitter-haters include quite a few Republicans, by the way. In 1999, when he first ran for Congress, not one of Vitter's fellow GOP state legislators in Louisiana's First Congressional District endorsed him. Now, as he hides from a media horde that smells blood in the water, one can almost imagine a tableau of gays and Republicans sharing a moment of uninhibited shadenfreude, dancing gleefully on Vitter's political grave.

As early as last Wednesday, there were calls for his resignation from within the Louisiana GOP. In Washington, the party's war room worked overtime to put the kibosh on such talk. Republicans are only one vote shy of controlling the U.S. Senate, and a Vitter resignation now, while Democrat Kathleen Blanco sits in the Louisiana Governor's Mansion, could put them two votes behind. (Were Vitter to resign, Blanco, as governor, would appoint an interim successor -- most likely a Democrat.)

As Vitter remained in an undisclosed location, ducking the press as well as his constituents, more sordid details emerged about his secret life as a serial whore chaser. Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt took credit for outing Vitter as a client of the D.C. Madam, but it was The Times-Picayune that found five phone calls to Vitter from the alleged prostitution ring -- starting just four months after his election to Congress -- and at his Beltway apartment, no less. The woman identified years ago as prostitute Wendy Cortez surfaced and told the T-P that she did in fact have a series of trysts with Vitter while he was a state lawmaker. Vitter had vehemently denied the affair during his run for the Senate, but Cortez's ex-boyfriend told the T-P he saw photos of them together.

Meanwhile, lawyers for accused D.C. madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey promised to subpoena Vitter and make him testify at her impending racketeering trial. That had to be sweet news for Democrats, who watched helplessly a decade ago as Republicans put then-President Bill Clinton under oath while they questioned him about his adulterous affairs.

On radio talk shows last week, there were lots of comparisons to Clinton. Here's one that most overlooked: While both men behaved badly, only Vitter was committing a crime at the time. Clinton's actions didn't become criminal until he was cornered and lied about them under oath. Vitter has already committed at least five crimes; he'll get at least one more chance -- this time for a felony -- if he's called to testify. Because the statute of limitations has run on his misdemeanor offenses, I doubt he'll be able to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. So, he'll either have to divulge details of his dalliances or commit perjury.

Gee, do you think the Bush Justice Department might consider offering Ms. Palfrey a deal to just go away ... quickly and quietly?

Ah, there's the rub. Vitter says it's all in the past, that he has 'fessed up to God and his wife and the whole thing should just end there. That would be fine if someone else were not facing 20 years in jail and forfeiture of all her assets in a federal RICO case for essentially the same transgressions. If Vitter can keep this between himself and God, why can't Palfrey? Why must she face the wrath of the Justice Department while Vitter invokes God's tender mercies -- in hiding?

By all that's right, either she should walk or he should fall.

Meanwhile, Vitter should stop hiding behind his wife and kids and come out to face the music. He spent enough time pretending no one could see him; it's time now to buck up and answer all questions thoroughly, openly and honestly. It's also past time to face his constituents and apologize -- this time with sincerity. If he doesn't have the guts to do all that and take his licks like a man, then he's got no business being in this business -- and the rest of us should all thank Vitter's merciful God that he was outed as a phony, a liar and a coward before he got any closer to the White House.

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