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John Ensign

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What’s the legacy, John?

Assuming he doesn’t resign, Ensign has plenty of time to salvage his reputation—but can he?

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Photo: Leila Navidi

Anyone would tell you this is bad. Not bad in the sense that things will get better someday, but the kind of bad that becomes a permanent footnote for all the history books bad. The kind of bad that makes Mark Sanford realize things aren’t so bad.

Admissions of extramarital affairs by politicians are hardly new, but it doesn’t diminish the effect such admissions have on their electorate, or the party they stand for. And as John Ensign’s constituents continue to reel from the fact that they actually voted for the guy, the revelations surrounding his affair with Cynthia Hampton continue to swirl in—favors, payouts, jobs, how many knew and said nothing, hypocrisy, alleged ethics violations. Even if Ensign were willing to talk about the issue now, he can’t, as he’s been advised not to do so.

That bad enough for ya?

Whatever happens in the near term, what about the long term? What will Ensign’s legacy be, if any, and how can he salvage what’s left of his career?

The academic

Okay, so UNLV political science professor Ted Jelen is a Democrat, but he swears that has nothing to do with his advice: Step down, and then take 12 steps.

“I think if he went into an in-patient rehab program for sex addicts, maybe that could salvage a legacy, but even then, I think it’s a long shot,” Jelen says. “What was important was that his statement at the beginning [revealing the affair] remain consistent with what came out afterward, and it just didn’t. Once it was inevitable all this stuff would come out, you pull the Band-Aid off cleanly. This happened, what, five weeks ago? It’s been in the news way too long.

“One of the beneficiaries of this whole thing is Harry Reid. Between Jim Gibbons and Ensign, ambitious Republicans in this state might have better opportunities than running against Reid. They’re vulnerable.”

Jelen says the American public forgave Bill Clinton, whom Ensign publicly spoke out against for his affair, “because what Clinton had going for him was a good economy. I mean, if you told me the American public would have been indifferent to him, I’d never have believed it. What’s different here is the hypocrisy, speaking out against Clinton, [Larry] Craig ... If they’re conservative Republicans and seem genuinely contrite, that’s one thing. The thing is, it’s never just an affair.”

As for Ensign’s legacy, Jelen doubts there will be much left, regardless of whether Ensign tries to run again in 2012. “He was doing the whole ‘citizen politician’ persona because of the veterinarian thing. I’m amused by the fact that he actually thought he had presidential prospects.”

The pundit

Chuck Muth thinks Ensign should step down and not return to politics—and he’s a Republican!

“This whole thing just smells terrible. Frankly, he’s done damage to the party that I don’t think is reversible,” Muth says. “You can’t complain and be moralist and be on your high horse and say ‘We’re the party of family values,’ and then slap those people in the face like that. It’s extremely hypocritical. But it’s more than that. At least with Eliot Spitzer it was a hooker, and at least with Larry Craig it was a public restroom, but this is a relationship with an employee, and we won’t know how bad this whole thing is until Cynthia talks about it.”

Still, Muth is not surprised Ensign hasn’t stepped down. “He’s always been about John Ensign. He’s going to hang on until the very last minute.”

And that tendency of “John being all about John” has hurt the Nevada Republican party, Muth says. “He was a consistent conservative vote in the senate, but he’s done nothing to build an organization that would translate the success he enjoyed through the rest of the party in Nevada. I can’t name any conservative legislation he’s sponsored and championed. And there’s no excuse for them not to have a headquarters and a staff where Ensign is the outgoing chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. It’s hard to believe how much the party here has deteriorated under his watch.”

Muth agrees that Ensign would have benefitted from coming clean at the outset, but the ongoing litany of revelations is killing any sympathy the voters might have for him. “He needs to come back and do it now. These are questions the citizens deserve answers to.”

As for salvaging a legacy, Muth suggested he “turn around, raise a million for the state party and aggressively go out and help build the party. If he did that, I think there’s a great deal of forgive and forget. But as long as folks think it’s all about John Ensign, there’s not a whole lot he can do.”

The politician

Most Republican lawmakers who offer comment on Ensign don’t think he should resign, and Republican State Sen. Mark Amodei isn’t an exception. But Amodei even remains optimistic that Ensign can be re-elected.

“The key time for his legacy is the next 24 months,” Amodei says. “Obviously the bump that John’s hit in the road is not the sort of thing, I sure think, he wants to be his legacy. So I think that his legacy will be, is he a guy who was successful in turning this problem that he’s dealing with right now around in the next 24 months?” Of course, all of that is based on the assumption that “there’s nothing else out there or formal proceedings are brewing.”

But Amodei begrudges no one who’s on the war path against Ensign. “In the past he took the opportunity to judge others in personal situations, and that makes him fair game.” Just don’t ask Amodei to judge. “As a guy who’s been divorced twice, I’ve made it a religiously strict practice not to judge other guys’ private lives, no matter what.”

Exactly how Ensign could “turn things around” was a little harder for Amodei to peg down: “He’s got to convince people the work he’s done up to this point is more important than the mistakes he’s made in judging others and himself.”

Amodei admits he feels a kinship with Ensign. Both men are 51, and Amodei and Ensign got to know one another while Ensign was running against Reid in 1998 (a race he lost by just over 400 votes) and Amodei was running against Ernie Adler (a race Amodei lost as well).

“I think John’s got some great tools and just needs to get back to using those tools for public service, and I think he’ll be fine.”

That simple, right?

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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