A harsh mistress

For five years now, I've been writing a weekly column in this newspaper, and I don't believe I've ever devoted even part of a column to Sen. John Ensign. The Nevada Republican is a bystander in the world of politics. He kneels on the sidelines while others dig in and get their hands dirty.

It's difficult to identify one major bill or any other political initiative to which Ensign can rightfully attach his name. Just in case I missed something along the way, I checked Ensign's Wikipedia page. It has to be one of the U.S. Senate's shortest, but it did remind me that Ensign is an animal rights advocate. He co-sponsored a bill making it a felony to transport animals across state lines for the purpose of fighting. Not mentioned on the page is that Ensign also has been a steadfast advocate of protecting Lake Tahoe.

Based solely on his meager political record, Ensign would seem unworthy of another six-year term. But of course there are other reasons he faces a steep climb to re-election.

Ensign had an affair with Cindy Hampton, a campaign aide and the wife of best friend and top aide Doug Hampton. Having an affair, in itself, does not justify a political death sentence. History provides a long list of people -- politicians and others -- who have struggled to remain faithful to their spouses. Many voters will overlook a remorseful person's temporary fallibility in this area.

But Ensign's case is more complicated than a mere moment of human weakness. In September, the New Yorker magazine reported on the events of 2008 that followed Ensign's affair. At the time, Ensign lived in the so-called C Street house, run by a spiritual organization called The Fellowship. The house near the Capitol serves as a sort of frat house for political leaders associated with The Fellowship.

When Fellowship members learned Ensign was having the affair, they confronted him about it. "The encounter was filled with recrimination and tears, and culminated with Ensign confessing and vowing to repent," New Yorker writer Peter J. Boyer recounts. Ensign was handed pen and paper and instructed to write a letter to Hampton ending the affair. "What I did with you was wrong," Ensign wrote. He also wrote: "I used you for my own pleasure" and, "I betrayed everything I believe in."

But Ensign's letter did not in fact end the illicit liaison. When Fellowship members learned Ensign had resumed his affair with Hampton, a group of them entered his room at the C Street house in the middle of the night and woke him up. "This second intervention ended with Ensign sitting at the foot of his bed, weeping," according to the New Yorker. "'You're right,' he told his friends. 'I'm going to end this craziness.'"

This all happened before Ensign's infidelity became public. But when Ensign learned a seething Doug Hampton planned to go to the press, Ensign issued a statement revealing the affair.

The twists of this tawdry story still are not exhausted. After Doug Hampton confronted Ensign about the affair, the senator's parents gave Cindy Hampton $96,000. Ensign called the money a gift, but others saw a more cynical motivation behind the generosity. Ensign also contacted Nevada firms in an effort to find lobbying jobs for Doug Hampton.

Last week, the Justice Department announced it would not pursue criminal charges against Ensign, and last month the Federal Elections Commission dropped a campaign finance complaint against him. A Senate Ethics Committee investigation continues.

But while Ensign is relieved he is not going to be charged with a crime, the court of public opinion is still in session. Beyond the extramarital affair itself, consider:

-- The affair occurred not with a stranger, but with his best friend's wife -- a woman who was also a friend of Ensign's wife. An affair is bad in any case, but it's really low when your mistress is your best friend's wife.

-- When confronted by his Fellowship friends, Ensign expressed remorse, then promptly resumed the affair -- a shameful betrayal of his spiritual brothers.

-- Ensign is associated not only with The Fellowship but with Promise Keepers, a religious group dedicated to, among other things, "building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values." Besides the hypocrisy of his actions, how can Ensign reconcile what he did with his response in 1998 to President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky? "He has no credibility left," Ensign said of the president and called for him to resign. Shouldn't that judgment apply to the senator too?

Despite his fall from grace, Ensign says he is running for re-election in 2012. To those multitudes who believe he "has no credibility left," this must seem like an incredibly foolish move. After all, Ensign is likely to face a challenge in the Republican primary from popular Rep. Dean Heller, whom oddsmakers surely would give a considerable edge to earn the party nomination.

But you never know. Voters sometimes have short memories. But even Nevada, heartland of American sin, should not countenance Ensign's scant accomplishments and indecorous behavior.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.