TOPEKA, Kan. — A Kansas congressman’s 10-second naked plunge into the sea where the Bible says Jesus walked on water prompted apologies Monday from him, head-shaking from other Republicans and the kind of international attention that no politician wants.
Rep. Kevin Yoder is all but certain to keep his seat despite any embarrassment arising from last year’s incident in Israel because Democrats haven’t fielded a candidate against him. But the freshman Republican acknowledged many of his constituents are wondering what he was thinking when he took his “spontaneous” skinny dip in the Sea of Galilee in August 2011.
Other lawmakers on the trip also went into the water at what’s considered a holy site for many Christians, and Yoder said their actions earned them a rebuke from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But Politico reported Sunday that Yoder was the only one who wore no clothes.
“It’s certainly not an incident that I’m proud of,” Yoder said. “It is something that was obviously a mistake on my part, and I want folks in the district to know that I’m apologetic for it.”
The tabloid press in Britain and the U.S. pounced on the story, with the New York Daily News blaring online, “NUDES FLASH!” and describing Yoder as a “skinny-dipping pol.”
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, criticized Yoder’s behaviour during an interview with a New Hampshire television station.
“I think it’s reprehensible,” Romney told WMUR-TV. “I think it’s another terrible mistake by individuals.”
Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon called Yoder’s behaviour “inexcusable” and said if the incident had occurred in Kansas, he would be forced to resign. She later issued a statement calling for him to step down.
“I’m astonished these people think they can go on these junkets like this and no one will know what they do,” Wagnon said.
Kansas Republican chairwoman Amanda Adkins, citing the 36-year-old congressman’s repeated apologies, said the incident shouldn’t overshadow his work representing a district centred on the state’s portion of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Another Kansas Republican, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said, he believed “something stupid occurred, and I think from time to time people do stupid things.”
U.S. House records show that at least 22 Republican congressmen and staff members were on the eight-day trip to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charity whose mission includes educating politicians about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. The group’s schedule included meetings with the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and more than two dozen other events.
The swimming occurred after an Aug. 18, 2011, dinner at a restaurant. Yoder said it was dark and members of the party jumped into the Sea of Galilee individually, not as a group. Yoder said he and his wife, Brooke, who was with him, had wine with dinner, but “alcohol did not play a role.”
“It was a spontaneous moment where other members of Congress were jumping in,” he said. “I made the mistake of diving in. I was in for about 10 seconds and got back out.”
Swimming in the lake is permitted but public nudity is not allowed, according to Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He said no official complaint had been made against Yoder, but it was possible he could still be charged even a year later.
“If that kind of incident takes place and someone makes an official compliant, we’ll investigate,” Rosenfeld said in Jerusalem.
Yoder served in the Kansas House from 2003 through 2010 and was chairman of its Appropriations Committee.
In February 2009, he was cited by the Kansas Highway Patrol for speeding and refusing to take a breath test following an early-morning traffic stop on a state highway in the Lawrence area. He later pleaded guilty to refusing to take the test and paid a $90 fine.
The traffic stop briefly caused ruffles during his successful 2010 run for Congress, but Yoder’s campaign said he’d refused to take the breath test because he’d passed another field sobriety test and wasn’t driving under the influence.