Sunday, April 24, 2011 | 2 a.m.
The details of the John Ensign saga are uniquely Nevadan, a grotesquerie of small-state politics with a former casino executive bringing the amoral industry culture to a place where such an ethos is prized and then being undone by his own narcissism and superficiality.
But this excruciating, consistently sickening tale, finally ending as it had to with Ensign’s resignation, is hardly sui generis as it reinforces every pejorative stereotype about politicians at every level.
The startling self-unawareness of those who live in glass houses, taking sustenance from enablers eager to downplay flaws and exaggerate virtues. The staggering hypocrisy of those who present a false front to the world, often of moral rectitude, whose public stances belie private actions. The insatiable lust for power by predators who are willing to take advantage of anyone to satisfy their desire for validation and elevation.
And, perhaps worst of all, the circle-the-wagons mentality, justified by a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I reflexivity, that causes elected officials to quietly condone abhorrent behavior or publicly refuse to roundly condemn such depredations.
For those who think justice has prevailed, pause a moment.
Ensign leaves Washington in disgrace, a mere shadow of the bright-eyed Gingrich revolutionary who burst on the scene in 1994 and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Nevada electoral history. But Ensign still has his wealth and his freedom, returning to the state where second chances are all but guaranteed.
In his wake, Ensign leaves a former best friend indicted and destitute, a mistress relegated to being a recluse, former loyalists financially strapped because of legal costs and a state whose status as a national subject of ridicule he has guaranteed.
There is human tragedy here. But one of the most disturbing aspects of this affair has been Ensign, the veterinarian, not realizing he had been neutered like one of those dogs and cats he used to operate on. Instead, the castrated senator still acted as if he were the cock of the walk, pressing on with his re-election plans until reality hit him a month and a half ago (retirement) and then last week as the Ethics Committee closed in (resignation).
For me — and many others, I think — this has never been about a sex scandal. If every politician guilty of infidelity — to his or her spouse or, say, the truth — were to resign, governors across America would have nothing to do but fill vacancies.
There were extraordinarily creepy aspects of this, to be sure. The member of the “C” Street cabal who cavorted with his best friend’s wife who was also his wife’s best friend. The man who was forced to write a “I love God more than you” letter by his Jesus frat housemates but then immediately called his mistress to tell her to forget that God stuff and that she still existed for his pleasure (or words to that effect). The $96,000 “gift” to Doug and Cynthia Hampton from Ensign’s parents was transparent hush money, as if Mommy and Daddy had to pay off the poor girl their randy college son had wronged.
This, though, really is a story of a dramatic fall from grace. We may never know if Washington changed Ensign or the capital brought out his true character. But we know this:
On the morning of June 16, 2009, John Ensign was a dark horse candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, a telegenic spokesman for the conservative cause who would have been a Tea Party hero. But by afternoon that day, John Ensign’s career was over, even though he refused to acknowledge it.
For nearly two years, Ensign has been intent on survival, not to protect his family from further pain, as he has consistently claimed, including in his resignation letter, but to clutch onto the seat he coveted with the same ardor as he did another man’s wife.
If you want to know why he left, don’t listen to anything the soon-to-be ex-senator said in that resignation letter. The reason is contained in the final sentence of a brief statement from the Senate Ethics Committee, which voted last week to continue to probe Ensign, even after the Justice Department decided its role is to leave senators alone and indict whistleblowers:
“Senator Ensign has made the appropriate decision.”
Indeed, the first time he has acted appropriately in a couple of years, and only because he knew ethics had the goods on him.
If there is any justice at Justice, Doug Hampton will not serve a day of prison time for his role in violating a cooling-off period. If he is incarcerated for what Ensign did to him and the senator is allowed to go back to spaying cats and dogs, that, too, will reinforce a stereotype:
The elected elite are different from you and me.