Friday, March 19, 2010 | 2 a.m.
It’s no longer a question of “if” but of “when” between now and January 2013 that John Ensign’s short, previously happy, suddenly unhappy life as a senator will end.
One week after I told you about Ensign’s breathtakingly obtuse statement through a spokesman — “Sen. Ensign has consistently acted in an ethical manner to avoid even the appearance of impropriety” — those words return as an emblem of his narcissism and denial.
KLAS Channel 8’s report this week by George Knapp and Jonathan Humbert indicated that a grand jury is convening in D.C. to consider information (perhaps by month’s end) gathered when FBI agents arrived in Southern Nevada this month brandishing subpoenas and tightening that ever-constricting investigative noose around the senator’s neck.
The parlor games are all great fun: Would Gov. Jim Gibbons appoint his opponent, Brian Sandoval, to Ensign’s seat if it came to a resignation and would Sandoval take it? Or: Can Rep. Shelley Berkley really compete for that seat she now covets as lustily as Ensign coveted his neighbor’s wife?
But the nagging, all-too-serious question is this: Is Ensign so self-absorbed and delusional that he is willing to bring down folks of varying innocence with him — either people loyal to him now having to hire attorneys to defend themselves because of the senator’s scandal or those whose tangential roles in his life have them under federal scrutiny.
Politicians are notoriously solipsistic, but Ensign’s behavior since his confess-and-run news conference June 16 has set a new nadir. It’s one thing to be exposed as a spectacular hypocrite, a moral crusader with feet of clay, and yet try to hang onto your Club of 100 membership as if it were more important than anything. But it’s quite different to become the focus of criminal and ethics probes and continue to clutch onto the senatorial ring despite the carnage — real, quantifiable human carnage — you are leaving in your wake.
What about reputable businessmen and businesses who have had shadows cast over their reputations by Ensign’s behavior — trying to get the cuckolded Doug Hampton a job — essentially ensnaring them in his massive cover-up? Ensign couldn’t care less about the effect on them when feds show up at their doors with subpoenas, the existence of which is inevitably leaked to the media.
What about John Lopez, who had an impeccable reputation on the Hill, but who now must hire a lawyer and be placed in the ineffably awful position of having to implicate his former boss? And my guess is he can. Lopez, given a soft landing at R&R Partners, may be the key to the entire case against Ensign in the probe of whether he conspired to help Hampton violate a cooling-off law.
What about Mike Slanker, the veteran political consultant who Ensign tasked with finding Hampton clients without, it appears, fully disclosing why, and forcing Slanker and his wife, another ex-Ensign aide, to defend themselves? I know many Democrats who despise Slanker for his brutal campaigns are feeling a sense of schadenfreude, but no one — no one — deserves that kind of treatment from someone who received loyalty for so many years.
And most of all, what about Ensign’s family having to continually endure the Chinese water torture that the senator could easily end with a simple announcement? If he were in private life, his wife and children would not have to constantly read more about his all-too-public transgressions.
We also learned Thursday that the subpoena-spreading around Nevada and Washington included the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The multitasking Ensign headed the committee while he was pursuing Cynthia Hampton. Again, good, faceless people are at risk because of Ensign’s unyielding impulse for self-preservation.
And what of the contributors at the time? As one wag put it, “Give to the NRSC and win a free trip to Washington to appear before a federal grand jury!”
That’s funny. But this story has little humor left, despite the rich lampooning vein for late-night comics and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
It’s clear from interviews conducted here and by national newspapers that Ensign abused his power as a senator to cover up his affair and to try to buy Hampton’s silence. But the senator may never admit to wrongdoing or be found technically guilty of anything. He is hardly innocent, though — guilty at least of unethical conduct by normal barometers, and of selfishly using those close to him to help cover his tracks and then jeopardizing their livelihoods.
Hmm. Sounds almost exactly what President Bill Clinton did to cover up his indiscretion. And John Ensign called on him to resign.
Senator, heal thyself.