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September 5, 2015

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Coolican: John Ensign could no longer ignore reality

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

The first time I encountered Sen. John Ensign, he was giving a news conference at the state Republican convention in lovely Mesquite in 2006.

At the time, the Iraq War was going badly. The media peppered Ensign with questions about mistakes made in the conception, planning and execution of the war. Reporters asked whether it was time to admit failure and change course.

His answer: Anyone criticizing the Bush administration was helping the enemy.

“Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy — let me tell you, I say this without reservation — they have hurt our military, they have emboldened the enemy.”

Remember those days? When criticism of the administration amounted to treason? Those were good times. That’s before a new president was elected and suddenly it became totally acceptable to accuse him of being history’s greatest monster. And probably a Kenyan spy.

Ensign, a Republican, continued his call for critics of the Bush administration to shut up. He quoted Dennis Miller: “I happened to believe in what we’re doing over there. But if I didn’t, I’d lie.”

No doubt he would. Still, it was a strange conception of participatory democracy.

But here’s what I found most striking: Through it all, Ensign was busy eating from a vegetable and dip tray. He was munching on carrots and Hidden Valley Ranch as he talked war. I’m sure the carrots were fresher than those in our soldiers’ MREs.

And in that performance there were subtle hints of the characteristics that were Ensign’s eventual downfall — his insouciant disconnection from reality, a belief that the rules of common decency didn’t apply to him because of his wealth and his status as a U.S. senator.

By now you know Ensign announced Monday he won’t seek re-election in the face of a tough primary challenge and a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his relationship with a former staffer who was married to his co-chief of staff and friend, Doug Hampton.

This disconnection from reality was most starkly illustrated when it became clear that even as he mused of presidential ambitions in spring 2009, he was trying to clean up the mess he’d made of his personal life, enlisting the aid of his parents’ fortune to pay the Hamptons $96,000.

Even after he admitted to the affair, he charged on, much to the consternation of his former friends.

For a story on Ensign last year, I interviewed many prominent Republicans who had known Ensign for years, and they were angered and shocked that he was intent on taking down so many people with him, including loyal former staffers who were forced to lawyer up in the face of a criminal investigation into allegations that Ensign had set up his former friend Hampton with a lobbying job and lobbying clients. (The Justice Department announced Ensign was cleared in the investigation.)

And yet, seemingly ever more isolated from reality, he pushed on, claiming he would run for re-election, although it could have cost Senate Republicans a shot at majority status in 2012; Democrats would have probably beaten him handily even if he survived a primary.

It seems unreturned phone calls from big-dollar donors and ugly poll numbers finally dropped reality on Ensign’s head and helped him see that his career in elected office is finished.

This kind of deep isolation from reality on the part of elected officials is not without consequence. For if Ensign couldn’t see the political reality that was so clear all around him, if he couldn’t get the message from his friends and family that he was finished, how was he to see his constituents and their daily struggles, the unemployed and uninsured, the families who have lost homes to foreclosure, the neglected children, the homeless veterans, the untreated mentally ill?

Coolican’s columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays.

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