Topic: Government & Politics

Thank you, Senator Ensign!

Thank you, Senator Ensign, for so vividly illustrating to all (all who are willing to think about it, that is) why adultery by elected officials is not “personal conduct,” and thus only the concern of prudes, scolds, hypocrites, Republicans and Ken Starr. The reason can be summed up in one word, and the word is “blackmail.” Adultery and other supposedly private misconduct is devastating to families and reputations, and the official who engages in these things risks giving unscrupulous individual power over the official. The power may be used to acquire money, or the power might be used to extract favors, political, financial, regulatory or legislative.

It has been revealed that Ensign paid out nearly $100,000 to the family of his mistress out of his private funds. In a statement that must have been hard to craft with a straight face, Ensign’s lawyers released this:

In April 2008, Senator John Ensign’s parents each made gifts to Doug Hampton, Cindy Hampton, and two of their children in the form of a check totaling $96,000. Each gift was limited to $12,000. The payments were made as gifts, accepted as gifts and complied with tax rules governing gifts.

After the Senator told his parents about the affair, his parents decided to make the gifts out of concern for the well-being of long-time family friends during a difficult time. The gifts are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others.

None of the gifts came from campaign or official funds nor were they related to any campaign or official duties. Senator Ensign has complied with all applicable laws and Senate ethics rules.

This is commonly called “hush money.” Senators, congressmen and other elected leaders are used to being influenced by money, and the threat of losing it is at least as powerful, and perhaps more, than the promise of gaining it. When an elected official is willing to pay this much money to keep a story quiet, it is a good bet that he will be willing to trade a vote, or an appointment, or a contract for the same result. Ensign reportedly came forward when the threat of further extortion became unbearable. The point is that he was being squeezed, and his own indiscretions allowed him to be squeezed.

Professionals of all kinds are obligated to maintain independent judgement: they are supposed to make decisions without influence from third parties, personal interests, and those who do not have the best interests of their constituencies at heart. Adultery, gambling debts, drug addiction, and kinky habits behind closed doors create a two-stage threat to that independent judgement. All it takes is for the secret to get out. Then that personal, private conduct can have very public consequences.

It’s a simple standard. While you are an elected official with duties to the public, do not engage in any private conduct that you would not be willing to have made public. If you aren’t willing to sacrifice your love for dressing in diapers, or participating in orgies, or taking in cock fights, or romping with interns, fine: then don’t run for office. It can’t be such an ordeal to live the life of a Boy Scout for four years, or six, or eight, can it? If it’s such an ordeal, maybe this rule can help encourage term limits. But please—please!—let’s drop the fiction that extramarital sexual affairs are “private” when they involve our leaders. They have the potential of affecting us all, and are nothing of the sort.

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