Monday, April 5, 2010 | 2 a.m.
It was a somewhat awkward venue, coming soon after he had confessed to an affair with his best friend’s wife, Cynthia Hampton, who had been Ensign’s campaign treasurer and whose husband, Doug Hampton, had been his Senate co-chief of staff.
Ensign’s chrome-colored hair just so and his shirt stiffly starched, as always, he plowed ahead.
“I want to first acknowledge my lovely bride. My wife, Darlene, is here. Anybody who does this job knows that, without a very supportive spouse, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish the things we were able to accomplish, especially when I go to Washington,” he said, awkwardness filling the air as if from a leaky propane tank.
“I want to share a few thoughts with you tonight. It’s always great, though, to be among such, um, well, beautiful women.”
That odd digression was followed by laughter.
“Gorgeous room here tonight, I know that. But also pretty, energetic women. We’re going to need that energy together,” he said.
For the second-term Republican, who won re-election with 55 percent of the vote in 2006, these tone-deaf — borderline obtuse — comments were just one example of increasingly arrogant behavior that goes back years, Republicans say.
In interviews with the Las Vegas Sun, more than a dozen friends, associates and Republican allies, some of whom have known Ensign for years, describe him as a politician who has grown narcissistic and reckless — a detached, self-righteous figure with almost no regard for those who helped send him to Washington or keep him there.
Ensign’s actions in the wake of the affair, and the resulting investigations by the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee have bled into the lives of his once-closest aides, associates and friends, as well as largely innocent bystanders and his family.
The sources, most of whom spoke to the Sun on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigations, said what rankles so many in Republican circles is that Ensign seems oblivious to the collateral damage caused by his actions, and unwilling to make the matter disappear by resigning.
Steve Wark, a longtime Nevada Republican operative, said Ensign’s failure to make and maintain relationships has come back to haunt him. “What’s made this more difficult for John Ensign is that when politicians get in trouble, other elected officials come to their aid out of devotion or obligation,” he said.
It is telling that for Ensign, that hasn’t been the case.
“It was always, for the most part, about John Ensign. That is fairly unusual — that lack of involvement and interest in other people’s careers, or in party-building,” Wark added.
According to recent reports in The New York Times and on KLAS Channel 8 and confirmed by the Sun, subpoenas related to the Ensign investigation have gone out to area businesses.
Although the investigation is focused on the senator, prominent Nevada businesses — including NV Energy, Allegiant Air, Rogich Communications and R&R Partners — have nevertheless been drawn into the embarrassing case.
“To think I’m even mentioned in this thing,” one Republican roped into the case said in frustration.
Pete Ernaut, a principal with R&R Partners and one-time Ensign adviser, said, “One unfortunate result from this whole situation is that a number of people, including me, have had their good names dragged through the mud when we had absolutely no involvement in any of the alleged improprieties.”
The Ensign investigation apparently seeks to determine if he tried to make his problems with the Hamptons go away by leaning on businesses to hire Doug Hampton as a consultant.
The Times reported last week that Ensign sought financial assistance for P2SA, a small energy company, while he was urging the company to hire Hampton.
Eventually, Ensign’s closest political aide, Mike Slanker, resurrected his dormant consulting firm November Inc. and hired Hampton, and Ensign worked to secure them clients.
Hampton, with Ensign’s knowledge and possibly illegal encouragement, is alleged to have lobbied Ensign’s staff, which if true would violate the law — former congressional staff cannot lobby for one year after leaving their jobs. Ensign has acknowledged that his parents gave the Hamptons $96,000 as a “gift.”
Slanker didn’t return a call. Hampton declined to comment. Ensign apologized for the affair last year, but aside from blanket statements that he did nothing illegal or unethical, he has largely avoided detailed questions about the matter.
On Friday afternoon, Ensign’s office e-mailed a statement: “Sen. Ensign remains focused on the job that he was elected to do at the urging of Nevadans from across the state. He continues to work on those issues that are most important to Nevadans such as strengthening our economy by creating jobs, reining in our national debt and enacting real health care reform.”
Even in the world of politics, where the mirror is everyone’s favorite accessory, examples of Ensign’s selfishness and arrogance are legion.
“Narcissism would be the best word,” a Republican insider said.
“The power changes everything,” another former associate said.
Given all that has since come to light, the person was incredulous describing Ensign’s behavior in early 2009.
The state’s junior senator had been elected to lead his party’s policy committee in the Senate after a stint as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the group dedicated to electing Republicans to the Senate. Republicans lost eight seats.
Ensign had to have been distracted during his chairmanship. He was busy with the affair and then efforts to make it go away.
And yet following that failure and with the cloud of the Hampton mess hanging over him, Ensign trekked to Iowa, the traditional proving ground for potential presidential candidates.
“He be-bops off to Iowa?” the source marveled.
Long before Ensign prompted speculation about a presidential run, the warning signs of what they regard as character defects were there, Republicans say.
A GOP operative witnessed him working as a casino manager, the career bequeathed to him by his father before politics: “He was an ass to his employees, barking orders, acting like a peacock.”
Ensign married his money to political power when he won a House seat in the Republican wave of 1994.
Chuck Muth, former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party and longtime conservative activist, recalled volunteering once at an Ensign fundraiser. “He treated us like hired help.”
After losing to Sen. Harry Reid by a whisper in 1998, Ensign ran again in 2000 and entered the world’s most exclusive club — the U.S. Senate. Republicans say his wife, Darlene, was displeased with the Washington lifestyle, which friends took as a portentous sign that Ensign should have heeded by returning to Nevada.
Instead, he was drawn deeper into the heady air of Washington, prodded on by a small, insular group of advisers, what one Nevada Republican called a “cult of Ensign.”
The Ensigns, the Hamptons and the Slankers. They were together so much that there were “wife-swapping” jokes, although no one suspected the worst.
As a senator he was known as a show horse, not a workhorse — neither knowledgeable nor interested in the gritty details of policy or politics.
A Nevada Republican on a trip East to lobby Ensign and Reid said the difference between the two was striking: Reid knew the issues, paid attention, and assigned staff who later followed up.
The Republican might have expected even better treatment from Ensign given they shared a party label. Not so.
Ensign was uninformed. “Two minutes in, Ensign is looking at his watch. Five minutes in, he’s gone. Staff says they’ll get back to me. Never did.”
Staff could hardly be blamed for dropping the ball — Ensign took pride in coming in under budget and giving office money back to the Senate, which meant he paid low salaries.
With his mind focused on Washington and his own ambitions, Ensign paid little attention to Nevada politics or the fortunes of the state Republican Party, including developing political talent here.
Republicans were miffed by his absence; his neglect is still costing the party, which is leaderless, adrift and without much of a bench.
“Years later, when he ran into problems, there weren’t many people willing to have his back,” a Republican insider said.
Something else bothered Nevadans.
“The reason you don’t see people rallying around him is he was so in your face about the morality stuff,” a Nevada Republican operative said.
Ensign was active in Promise Keepers and openly evangelical, gushing with pious intonations.
After being found out and confronted by Doug Hampton, Ensign wrote to Cynthia Hampton to ostensibly end the relationship, and he pulled it off with a religious flourish: “God never intended for us to do this. I walked away from Him and my relationship with Him has suffered terribly.”
The letter was something of a ruse, however, according to Doug Hampton, who has said in previous interviews that Ensign began to pursue his wife again almost immediately.
And here is a key paradox of Ensign’s character, assuming he is not driven by pure malice. How could a man proclaiming to worship Jesus Christ, whose ministry was about selfless devotion to others, discard the lives and emotions of friends, family, associates, staff?
An answer might be found in the house where Ensign wrote that letter to Cynthia Hampton.
It was the now-infamous C Street house, a shared residence where Ensign lived, and one of several properties in the Washington area owned by “The Family,” the shadowy Christian group whose members inhabit the highest reaches of American influence.
D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist who studied The Family or as it is alternately known, The Fellowship, for years, said the group teaches a “soft Gospel” of nonjudgmentalism. “I couldn’t find any instances when they had a word of judgment or condemnation for people in their circle,” he said.
Lindsay said people in the upper echelon of power-soaked Washington “would benefit from greater accountability in these small circles, but it tends not to happen in the case of The Fellowship.” He finds no coincidence in the adultery scandals of Ensign and two other members of The Family, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Mississippi Sen. Chip Pickering, Lindsay said.
Theirs is a religion, in this telling, shaped more by access to power and influence than by divinely commanded ethical precepts.
Ensign’s residence at the C Street house has led to yet more trouble, as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a complaint against Ensign and his housemates — eight senators and representatives, in all — accusing them of paying below-market rent at the house, therefore violating the congressional gift ban.
Jeff Sharlet, whose book “The Family” details the history and influence of the group, said that despite its mostly conservative membership, its theology is far from rigorous or conservative. “They want the juice of piety without thinking it through,” Sharlet said.
“It’s not that you’re allowed to do anything. It’s that what you do is not the criteria for leadership. What matters is not that Ensign is a swell guy. It’s that he’s chosen,” Sharlet said.
Although The Family is a secretive group, determining who is chosen seems relatively uncomplicated: Powerful elected and business leaders are in.
Ensign’s days as a member of elite Washington appear to be numbered, however.
With the FBI investigating, “it’s every man for himself,” a Republican operative said.
And finally, “No one perjures himself for John Ensign.”
Sun reporters Michael Mishak, Lisa Mascaro and David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story was changed to reflect that Ensign is in his second term. | (April 5, 2010)