The world-weary folks at the Washington Post Style section have made it official -- the Sen. John Ensign affair is just no fun at all. Part of the problem is that the senator is running toward the story rather than away from it. To put this in Beltway speak, he followed the age old mantra: Hang a lantern on your problem. Here's a chunk of the intentionally boring Style report:
Heterosexual politician cheats on wife with consenting female family friend? Not that it doesn't have its own seething outrage factor (Hypocrisy angles: He's a Republican Promise Keeper who condemned those who had committed similar acts). ... It's just that the bar for slimy extra-political behavior has been set so very, very high. ...
Handled properly, ... this could all eventually go away. And so far, all the handling has been nearly flawless.
"He was able to control the story by running to it, not away from it," says Michael Robinson of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. There was no National Enquirer gotcha photo, no wiretaps or sheaves of naughty text messages. There was only the news conference, the I'm-just-a-man admissions of his own weakness, the no questions, please.
Yes, there is a bit of the "what happens in Nevada, stays in Nevada" angle to this. But you can see the religion angle of the story sticking out there -- as it has in almost every mainstream story about Ensign's sin. The man has backed the Promise Keeper's Movement and he failed to keep his promise. When you're playing by biblical rules, it doesn't matter that the affair took place during a time when he and his wive agreed to a time of separation.
Here's another typical passage on that theme, adding the scarlet "born again" label, from The Politico:
A staunch fiscal and social conservative, Ensign has been considered a rising star in his party, recently making headlines by speaking at events in Iowa, raising speculation about his interest in a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.
A born-again Christian, Ensign has been a member of the Promise Keepers, a male evangelical group that promotes marital fidelity.
And one more time, from the Los Angeles Times:
The senator also could be vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. He belongs to Promise Keepers, a Christian group whose members pledge, among other things, to abide by biblical principles to build strong marriages.
As a candidate for the Senate, Ensign demanded that President Clinton resign after having an affair with a White House intern. He also voted to impeach Clinton. Years later, Ensign strongly suggested that Sen. Larry Craig resign in the wake of his arrest in a 2007 airport bathroom sex sting in Minneapolis. The Idaho Republican pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
This story may still have legs and there is always a possibility that, in trying to clean up the mess, Ensign took some actions that stretched the laws of man as well as those of God. However, it does seem that reporters are missing part of the story here, when it comes to the Promise Keepers.
Yes, that movement stressed fidelity in marriage. But one of its strengths was its efforts to get men to come clean about their sins -- from workaholism to infidelity, from porn to alcohol -- and then to seek reconciliation with their wives and families. The defining moment of a Promise Keeper's rally was a wave of men heading to the altar to repent, not to claim that they were without sin.
Thus, for cultural conservatives, the crucial part of this story is that Ensign has outed himself and then condemned his own actions. The Los Angeles Times used this quote:
"It's absolutely the worst thing I have ever done in my life," he said at a televised news conference. "If there was ever anything that I could take back in my life, this would be it."
The senator's wife also released a statement that, together, they had sought out a counselor and are seeking to pull their marriage back together, with the support of their children.
So, a hypocrite? Yes. That's pretty normal for human behavior.
A repentant sinner? You bet. Ensign called a sin a sin.
Reconciled? That's the hard part and that's what the Promise Keeper's Movement was all about.
In other words, there's a story behind this story, even if it's a little boring and lacks true Beltway style.