Meet David Vitter: lawyer, Rhodes scholar, U.S. senator, gubernatorial candidate, legendary strategist and unapologetic political bomb thrower.
Oh yeah, and victim.
That’s right. Victim. Or so Vitter’s claiming to be, in perhaps the most improbable turn in a political season that’s brimming with them. In a pair of explosive joint appearances this week with runoff rival John Bel Edwards, the candidate who once planned to employ overwhelming force to muscle his way into the Governor’s Mansion, tried to cast himself not as predator but as prey. Trailing in every poll despite the state’s heavily Republican leanings, Vitter has embraced a new strategy, seeking sympathy for all the ammunition pointed his way.
Discussing those brutally negative ads he and his Super PAC have run, first against his vanquished GOP primary opponents and then versus Democrat Edwards, Vitter argued that he’d endured worse from eight different entities that were out to get him: the three rival campaigns, their affiliated Super PACs and two outside, trial-lawyer funded groups that favor Edwards. Even so, none have taken nearly the liberties that Vitter’s ads have, and all have ample evidence to back up their claims.
Asked about the private investigator on Vitter’s payroll who was caught filming Edwards donor John Cummings at a Metairie coffee shop, along with Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, state Sen. Danny Martiny and Danny DeNoux, a fellow sleuth who has admitted digging up dirt on Vitter, he claimed nobody had been watched more closely than him. He then recounted, with exaggerated irritation, the time Advocate reporter Tyler Bridges tried to interview him using a digital recorder after he left the voting booth the morning after the incident, as if surreptitious surveillance of private individuals and upfront newsgathering are one and the same.
As for the incident itself, Vitter first declared it “silly” during a Baton Rouge Press Club debate Monday, then suggested he took it quite seriously by claiming the existence of “what I believe is an illegal scheme” to “pay for false testimony for witnesses against me.” Vitter didn’t elaborate but said he’d gone to the FBI.
In apparent response, Normand, a longtime Vitter adversary, held a news conference the next day outlining in seedy detail what he couched as a sophisticated spy operation conducted against Vitter’s foes on his campaign’s dime. He showed off advanced recording equipment, including a device designed to look like a standard-issue smartphone. He described video, some of it deleted, that his investigators were able to retrieve from three seized devices, which showed home surveillance of both Cummings and Jason Berry, a blogger who’d published damaging (albeit disputed) testimonials from a New Orleans prostitute about her alleged relationship with Vitter.
He recounted (but did not show) additional recordings that he said revealed a Vitter private investigator pressuring another woman to sign an affidavit undermining the prostitute’s account, all with the stated goal of keeping the story out of the mainstream media. Normand said another recording involves Vitter campaign manager Kyle Ruckert and an unnamed prominent businessman who didn’t know he was being recorded.
Normand topped it all off by questioning Vitter’s motives in airing his suspicions in public.
“What’s interesting is that Mr. Vitter yesterday suggested that he did not want to make this investigation political, although during a press conference he said that he had turned some information over to the FBI,” Normand said. “I would suggest to you that if you don’t want to get some good political outfall from that, why say anything? Just turn it over to the FBI.”
And in an irony so sweet that his longtime foes must be licking their lips, Vitter’s taken to accusing Edwards of being “holier than thou.” Early in his career, Vitter built a formidable reputation by claiming to be more upstanding than everyone else. That worked back when he was going after shady inside deals, but in recent years, his allegations have often amounted to little more than nakedly political maneuvers. And don’t forget that this is a guy who once called on President Bill Clinton to resign following the Monica Lewinsky affair but then claimed privacy and clung to his job when his own phone number was discovered in the records of a Washington, D.C., call girl ring.
During Tuesday’s Louisiana Public Broadcasting debate, Vitter once again attempted to invoke sympathy by calling Edwards’ dramatic ad, which highlights a congressional vote to honor fallen soldiers that Vitter missed on the same day he took a call from the prostitution ring, the most vicious of the whole campaign. Edwards easily put Vitter in his place.
“If it’s a low blow, it’s only because that’s where you live, Senator,” Edwards said.
Once upon a time, Vitter would have been on the giving end of a withering line like that, not the receiving end. And face it, he would have been a lot more convincing than he is these days.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.