‘Gift’ of $96,000 Can’t Buy Silence for Sin: Margaret Carlson

In politicians, the spontaneity gene is recessive. Vestigial traces are squelched by high-priced consultants. Watch “Meet the Press” any Sunday morning and promise to drink at every unscripted comment. You’ll never touch your Bloody Mary.

This might be a good thing. Just imagine how many more Washington sex scandals there would be if members of Congress, away from their families for nights at a time, surrounded by admirers fascinated by how a bill becomes a law, felt free to let loose.

In the annals of Washington scandals, Senator John Ensign, who acknowledged an affair with his campaign treasurer in 2009 and announced Monday he won’t seek re-election in 2012, will barely merit a mention.

The Nevada Republican didn’t measure up to the made-for-TV-movie assignations of New York’s former governor, Democrat Eliot Spitzer -- “Client 9,” in his black socks -- traveling to Washington to meet “Kristen” at the Mayflower Hotel. Or to Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, he of the wide stance, who never could quite explain why an innocent person would plead guilty to responding to the overtures of an undercover cop in an airport bathroom.

L’affaire Ensign also lacked for visuals, unlike the case of New York Representative Christopher Lee, who was caught flexing shirtless in his Craigslist ad. Using his real name, Lee boasted to his would-be paramour that he wouldn’t disappoint. She had only to switch screens and do a search to find out he was a married congressman -- and then switch screens again to share it with Gawker. Lee, a Republican, quit and left town before tears could come to John Boehner’s eyes.

Mom and Dad

The most risible part of Ensign’s affair was that his mom and dad came up with the $96,000 given to the cuckolded husband. If an attempt to keep Junior’s affair quiet, it failed.

Otherwise, the story was pure tragedy: Ensign’s wife temporarily left him, a lifelong friendship ended, and a promising political career stalled. A conservative Christian, jut-jawed, with a mane of white hair, Ensign looked like a president and rose quickly to a position in Republican leadership after his election in 2000.

In 2007, Ensign took up with a female member of his campaign staff, Cynthia Hampton, who was married to a member of his Senate staff, Doug Hampton. Both were close friends of the Ensigns. When the husband found out, he was livid, and both Hamptons left their jobs. In 2009, after Hampton reportedly reached out to Fox News to share his story, Ensign got out ahead of him with a public confession.

Vitter’s Example

Until Monday, Ensign was hanging tough politically. Lee’s hasty exit aside, sex scandals these days don’t always end with a sudden need to spend more time with the family. For inspiration Ensign could just look over at Louisiana, which last year voted to give a second term to Senator David Vitter, who in 2007 admitted to “a very serious sin” after being identified as a client of the so-called D.C. Madam and her escort service.

If the Big Easy could give Vitter a second chance, surely Sin City would be just as forgiving.

But Ensign forgot a cardinal rule of scandals: it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.

Just look to Italy, where Prime Minister (and onetime cruise ship crooner) Silvio Berlusconi is about to go on trial after 17 years of getting away with his notorious “bunga-bunga” parties, with his harem dressed up as nasty nurses and gendarmes. Three (female) judges will evaluate why he used the power of his office to get an underage prostitute -- whom he claims not to have been intimate with -- out of jail when she was charged with theft. Ludicrously, he said he did so believing she was the niece of Hosni Mubarak and wanting to avoid a diplomatic row.

Bad Judgment

Vitter didn’t pay to silence anyone -- as far as we know -- and he owned up quickly and publicly. Ensign’s bad judgment in his personal life was compounded by his parents’ “gift” and by his efforts to help Doug Hampton get a lobbying job after leaving Ensign’s payroll.

Ensign survived investigations by the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department. But last month the Senate Select Committee on Ethics appointed a special counsel to oversee a probe into his conduct, a signal it would neither be quick nor easy.

Back when the spotlight was on Craig, not him, Ensign said a senator who admits guilt to wrongdoing should resign.

“I wouldn’t put myself hopefully in that kind of position, but if I was in a position like that, that’s what I would do,” he said in 2007.

‘Ugly Campaign’

Oh, the things we say from our moral high horses. It took Ensign, riding low, much longer than Craig to remove himself, finally citing concern for the “pain” of an expected “ugly campaign” for inspiring him to drop out.

His colleagues are relieved. Republicans stand a better chance of retaining the seat with him out of the picture. Most feel about Ensign what Ensign felt about Craig: a hope that the miscreant would disappear before Jay Leno could make a running joke out of another Washington official.

This way, they can all return to script.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Click on “Send Comment” in the sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE