The twin disasters of Mark Sanford and John Ensign expose the Republican Party apparatus for the laziness, pettiness, and emptiness of what is left of the leadership. But the crash of Sanford—much higher on the 2012 list—eclipses that of Ensign.
The political mystery of the moment is why two virile Republican presidential contenders with decades of hard work and years of political savvy both set themselves on fire on TV within weeks of each other.
Is this a mutation of Potomac fever that cuts down Republicans like dandelions? Or is this the sort of Allen Drury soap opera that comes to a waxen party that is out of touch with its own history, drained of a sense of proportion, shrunken to the size of a boys locker room full of cowboy manqués, Dixiecrat clones, and Lothario losers like Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford?
Sanford may look like a “19th Nervous Breakdown,” but one week ago he was a cunning self-promoter who was creating the network needed to win the nomination and use his snake-charms, cruelty, lust, and cynical vanity to sneak into the White House.
The Ensign and Sanford cases are so similar that from just a little distance like Rome—where they have a genuine Don Giovanni—you would be safe assuming that this was all the same tawdry, cheatin’-heart tale, like a Nashville ballad on replay.
A chiseled-jaw, baritone voiced, self-righteous pol achieves lordly party acclaim from his peers in preparation for a presidential run and then, without warning, walks into a live TV conference to confess, grovel, obfuscate, and flee.
The facts available so far do not add up to a coherent timeline for either of these now self-disgraced has-beens.
For Ensign, what we have is chiefly his assertion in his clumsy, hasty, ill-attended media conference on June 14, that he separated from his wife, started an affair with a married staffer, Cynthia Hampton, in December 2007, ended the affair with the married staffer in August 2008, reunited with his wife, and has now come forward voluntarily to the media to confess because he may have become the target of threats of exposure by the married staffer’s spouse, Doug Hampton, who was also an Ensign staffer at one time. Both of the unusual Hamptons left Ensign’s employ in May 2008 and have yet to speak out on their own behalf, using a lawyer letter to plead, “please respect their privacy.”
Speaking up loudly is a pesky watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, that has filed a complaint to Senator Barbara Boxer’s Senate Ethics Committee, pointing to its suspicions that Ensign used his political action committee to pay money to Cynthia Hampton during and after the affair. Also making noise is the Las Vegas Sun, which has published its suspicion that Hampton sent by FedEx written allegations against Ensign to Fox News on June 12, three days before the Ensign voluntary presser on June 15, and that somehow not only did Fox not pursue the story, but also that someone may have “tip(ped) off Ensign.”
Ensign continues to cringe mutely, resigning his staff-and-budget-rich position as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, turning down all invitations to high-profile TV shows to explain himself, bowing for two minutes before his Senate Republican colleagues on Tuesday, June 22 in order to illustrate his contrition. The only thing that is convincing about Ensign is that his ambitions for the nomination are trash and that his dash to Sioux City, Iowa, on June 1, two weeks before his humiliation, was the high-water mark of his White House run.
After Ensign’s brief apology to his peers, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sounded like a mortician wishing a client well across the River Styx: “I think Senator Ensign will address whatever needs to be said from here on.”
Mark Sanford’s sudden dive overshadows Ensign’s just because Sanford was much higher on the list of dream presidential candidates. Sanford’s one-man campaign to force the state of South Carolina to refuse $700 million of the Obama administration's March stimulus package raised his profile as a conservative firebrand, both to the Tea Party set and to despondent party Brahmins. As recently as June 2, the leader of the South Carolina state legislature, Republican Glenn McConnell, prophesied usefully of Sanford, “He’s moved into the national arena,” while Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer coyly suggested to the Wall Street Journal that there were “no plans” to run for the presidency.
Sawyer and the rest of the governor’s staff have spent the last week promoting bad adventure fiction about Sanford’s whereabouts on the Appalachian Trail. We now are told that Sanford’s absence included a rendezvous with a female paramour in Argentina whom he regards as “a dear, dear friend.” Sanford’s revelation of his deceptions is just the beginning of the yarn. The governor appeared stubbornly disconnected from reality as he rambled on about his romance and “the odyssey we’re all on in life.” He left the stage to the shouts of the not unbemused media asking if he would be resigning, as if that was the worst thing that was going to happen to his family and to him the next days of the tabloid cat o' nine tails.
The Republican Party cannot walk away with the same square shouldered self-pity as Sanford. According to just-released emails from Sanford to the Argentine woman, named Maria, he was boasting in July last year of the “VP talk” around him when he visited John McCain in Colorado. Before they took it back today, the other GOP governors had made Sanford the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, which was a first-class ticket on a one way campaign plane to 2012. Sanford may look like a “19th Nervous Breakdown,” but one week ago he was a cunning self-promoter who was creating the network needed to win the nomination and use his snake-charms, cruelty, lust, and cynical vanity to sneak into the White House.
The twinned disasters of Ensign and Sanford expose the whole party apparatus for the laziness, pettiness, and emptiness of what is left of the leadership. Look at what the party has come to, Republicans: A handful of sharpies and a gang of back-scratchers, all persuaded that Ensign and Sanford were credible campaigners. Have you noticed how many of our pols look like Citizen Kane as he faced the inevitability of his exposure for fraudulence and refusing to back down, shouted, “Don’t you worry about me! I’m Charles Foster Kane! I’m no cheap crooked politician, trying to save himself from the consequences of his crimes…”
John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.