Tanned and toned, with not a silver hair out of place, Sen. John Ensign went before local reporters Tuesday to admit his affair with a former close family friend and campaign staffer.
It was a moment of political theater that defined conceit, the sort of routine practiced way off Broadway in front of understanding critics and a hometown crowd. While I don’t doubt it pained Ensign greatly to stand at the lectern exposed as a self-righteous, family values hypocrite, we know it wasn’t character or conscience that led him to return "to Nevada to come forward and explain to the citizens of our state something that I was involved in about a year ago."
We now know he had just learned his affair with Cynthia Hampton was about to be exposed in the press by the woman’s husband, Ensign’s former Senate administrative assistant, Doug Hampton.
At the conclusion of Ensign’s woefully incomplete press statement, he added, "I will not be taking any questions."
On the contrary, senator. You’ll be taking plenty. Whether you choose to answer them could mean the difference between surviving in politics and resigning in disgrace. So far, you’ve chosen to hide out on political bereavement leave and allow an assistant to comment on your behalf.
First, there’s the question of just how hard you were squeezed for money by Doug Hampton, or whether his letter to Fox News prompted your sudden announcement. Whispers and statements from assistants make you look like someone who got tired of practicing checkbook diplomacy.
Your incomplete statement also rekindles questions about why you disappeared from the Senate back in 2002 to fly home amid rumors you’d been caught in an affair with a staffer. That story seems more plausible in light of Tuesday’s tortured admission.
Then there’s the level of personal betrayal involved here. Start with marital infidelity. Then add the fact the affair was conducted with the woman thought to be your wife’s best friend. Not to mention Hampton was on your payroll and was the wife of one of your closest friends and employees.
A "Days of Our Lives" producer would call that scenario too preposterous for daytime TV.
That Ensign fell short of his marriage vows isn’t a scandal. All humans have feet of clay. Marriages are hard to keep together. I feel sorry for Ensign’s wife and children.
But we don’t all run for high public office on the "Promise Keepers" moral superiority platform, as Ensign did. We don’t all wave the banners of God, country, and family values while hustling votes. We don’t all use our voter-given political platform to vilify others’ failings while we’re not exactly practicing what we preach.
Ensign in 2004 wasn’t shy about wrapping himself in the Federal Marriage Amendment, which sought to change the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and woman. The act became a conservative rallying cry and fomented anti-homosexual sentiment.
"It is not right to mold marriage to fit the desires of a few, against the wishes of so many, and to ignore the important role of marriage," Ensign said.
No, we wouldn’t want to sully that sacred institution.
Ensign wasn’t alone in his criticism of President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and he also took a point-blank shot at Sen. Larry Craig following the Idaho Republican’s arrest in a Minneapolis airport bathroom during a gay sex sting.
"We need people who are in office who will hold themselves to a little higher standard," Ensign said.
I grade on the curve on these sorts of things, but I’m not sure Ensign met the minimum requirements for "higher standard." Craig’s alleged behavior was sleazy. Ensign admitted nailing a subordinate and family friend.
It was Ensign who abused his position of power.
Of course, he didn’t address that as he delivered his Hallmark card to the local press, Nevada voters, and his wife.
Which brings me to the only thing I can say in Ensign’s defense: At least he didn’t drag his mortified spouse in front of the media in a staged show of support.
He concluded Tuesday’s skit with, "I am committed to my service in the United States Senate and my work on behalf of the people of Nevada."
That’s the ultimate conceit: John Ensign might still believe Nevadans can’t get along without him.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.