Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
“I can’t imagine him wanting to put his family through that or the Senate through that, but we’ll see.”
— John Ensign to the Associated Press in 2007 on prospects of Senate Ethics Committee hearing on Sen. Larry Craig
It’s hard to imagine what is unimaginable to John Ensign.
The Senate’s most accomplished fabulist — this is a low honor — lives in a different world from the rest of us, one where ethics are purely situational, where past statements are not binding, where standards he holds others to are irrelevant to him. As the Senate Ethics Committee signaled Tuesday by appointing a special counsel that it is moving forward with its probe of Ensign, the senator’s political life slithers closer to its endpoint, even if he remains unaware in that parallel universe impervious to reality.
When Larry Craig was caught in his foot-tapping scandal in the Minneapolis airport, no one was quicker than Ensign to suggest the Idaho senator resign, just as he precipitously called for Bill Clinton to step down after the Lewinsky scandal. “I wouldn’t put myself, hopefully, in that kind of a position like that but if I was in a position like that, I think that’s what I would do,” Ensign said in a very unchristian way, the milk of human kindness having evaporated. He also argued at the time that Craig’s resignation would be in the best interest of the Republican Party. “That’s obvious,” he told AP.
Ensign would argue the situation is different for him, and it is. It is worse. Ensign would say Craig pleaded guilty, but we know what Ensign is guilty of and there is no comparison.
Craig pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. Ensign’s conduct would have to be substantially upgraded to simply be called disorderly, whether the Justice Department ever charges him with a felony or the Senate Ethics Committee proceeds. I really don’t want to revisit the cavalcade of depredations, or throw in a gratuitous Joseph Welch quote. But I ask you: What is worse, doing what Craig did in that restroom, a victimless crime, or what Ensign did, which victimized many, many people?
This is, despite what his apologists suggest, not a sex scandal. It is a sordid tale of rank hypocrisy in which a U.S. senator had an affair with one of his staffers who was his best friend’s wife and his wife’s best friend, who then had his parents pay $96,000 to as a “gift” and who tried to soothe his soul by finding employment for the cuckolded husband. It is, in a word, unimaginable.
If Ensign truly cared about his family or the Senate or the Republican Party — as he suggested Craig should — he would not even be contemplating re-election, much less sending out fundraising letters Tuesday and meeting with his strategy team. Is he so narcissistic that he believes the country can’t live without him?
This is a pathology I find unfathomable, but symptomatic of the kind of self-delusion rarely seen even in the 202 area code. I suppose Ensign may have leave from God to do what he is doing — perhaps he dialed into the Lord on the dedicated John Ensign-Sharron Angle line. Or maybe they simply had a secret session at the C Street sanctuary and decided Ensign was too special, too gifted to simply become mortal again.
If anyone can bring Ensign down to Earth, it is Carol Elder Bruce, selected Tuesday by the ethics panel to be the special counsel in the sweater’s case. Bruce is a former prosecutor and independent counsel who apparently is known for her toughness and stick-to-itiveness. She has been involved in these kinds of probes before — with former Attorney General Ed Meese and ex-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt — and she is not afraid of unpopular causes — she has been an outspoken in protecting the rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees she has represented. This is not a woman who will be afraid to take on a U.S. senator.
Ensign’s lawyers tried to downplay the development, saying Bruce’s appointment “does not change the course of the inquiry.” But that was in stark contrast to news outlets that called the appointment “stunning” and “a dramatic turn.” Or as Politico’s John Bresnahan succinctly put it, “The appointment of special counsel, however, presents a new, and potentially devastating, blow to Ensign’s re-election prospects.”
Indeed. Ensign is one of the few people who has thought since his June 2009 disclosure of the affair and the subsequent revelations that he has any chance to survive. But many others surely have mused thusly:
I can’t imagine him putting his family through that or the Senate through that, but we’ll see.