Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada didn’t tap his foot in a bathroom stall like Larry Craig or spirit away to pricey bordellos like David Vitter, but like Newt Gingrich, he had an extramarital affair with a young staffer on his payroll. Ensign admitted his affair Tuesday, declaring, “I deeply regret and am versorry for my actions.” According to Politico, Ensign only revealed the affair when the husband of the woman involved demanded “a substantial sum of money” to keep quiet.
Confessed just two weeks after a visit to the Republican presidential-primary state of Iowa, Ensign’s affair effectively ends his apparent presidential ambitions. It also undermines his carefully cultivated image as a stalwart against the machinations of liberal judges, feminists, and homosexual activists.
Beginning with his call from the House floor for President Bill Clinton to resign after having an affair—“He has no credibility left,” Ensign said—and continuing through his tenure in the Senate with a hard-right voting record that earned a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition, Ensign has earned a reputation as one of Congress’ most active and ardent social conservatives. In 2008, he was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee, making him the No. 4 Republican in the Senate, a rising star at age 51 in a party with few strong presidential prospects. The future looked bright.
Before admitting his affair, Ensign last addressed the issue of marriage on July 13, 2004, during the congressional debate over amending the Constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage.
“Marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded,” Ensign proclaimed from the Senate floor. “For those who say that the Constitution is so sacred that we cannot or should not adopt the Federal Marriage Amendment, I would simply point out that marriage, and the sanctity of that institution, predates the American Constitution and the founding of our nation. It predates the founding of our nation and even the landing at Plymouth Rock. Marriage, as a social institution, predates every other institution on which ordered society in America and the world as a whole, has relied, including even the church itself.”
Ensign concluded, “It is not right to mold marriage to fit the desires of a few, against the wishes of so many, and to ignore the important role of marriage.”
Unlike some of his colleagues, Ensign’s jeremiads against gay marriage reflected a sincere expression of his faith and personal sensibility. Indeed, Ensign is a Promise Keeper and the only Pentecostal in the Senate—former Missouri Senator and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was the first—and a member of a congregation in Las Vegas affiliated with the ultra-conservative International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
He is a confidant of the church’s president, televangelist Jack Hayford, who prayed with him at the 2006 Foursquare Convention. Besides advocating the practice of speaking in tongues and conversion therapy for homosexuals, Hayford has published a book, Fatal Attractions, calling extramarital affairs and other “sexual sins” worse than any other sins. In another book, The Anatomy of Seduction,Hayford railed against “temptation in its countless forms—from carnality, pornography, and marital infidelity to cultural trends in the media and immoral lifestyle choices.”
In September 2007, Ensign attempted to leverage his power as chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee to force then-Senator Larry Craig to resign after he pleaded guilty in August 2007 to soliciting sex from an undercover cop in a men’s restroom. However, Ensign made no such demand of Sen. David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican who in July 2007 admitted to an affair with a high-priced prostitute. On ABC’s This Week, Ensign tried to explain his confusing standards, claiming that Craig “admitted guilt. That is a big difference between being accused of something and actually admitting guilt… David Vitter never did that. Larry Craig did.”
(Perhaps he missed Vitter’s press conference admitting guilt?)
Thanks in part to Ensign’s maneuvering, Craig retired in disgrace while Vitter remained in the Senate, speaking triumphantly at a giant antiabortion rally on the National Mall in January. “We’re going to win this fight!” Vitter told the crowd.
Since Ensign’s coup de grace, Vitter and a phalanx of Republican senators wait to offer their latest fallen comrade some comfort. They still need him, after all. Their culture war must go on.