After years of taking fire for scandals in his personal life, the retiring Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.) gave his farewell speech on the Senate floor today. Mere weeks ago, Ensign announced that he would resign from his Senate seat, as the Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his extra-marital affair and the payoffs that followed started to close it's loop around the embattled lawmaker.
Ensign's troubles began in 2009, when it came to light that he had been having a prolonged affair with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign staffer who was married to Douglas Hampton, one of Ensign's Capitol Hill aides. To make it up to Douglas, Ensign's parents gave him a nifty "gift" of $96,000 and offered him some assistance in getting a new job. According to the New York Times Eric Lichtblau and Eric Lipton: "Those activities may have violated an ethics law that bars senior aides from lobbying the Senate for a year after leaving their posts." And, while Ensign insisted that the monetary compensation was a "gift," Hampton maintained that he understood it to be "severance."
The whole thing soon became an ugly mess, with Doug Hampton making claims that more monetary compensation was being negotiated, and Ensign's Senate colleague Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) getting dragged into the matter as well. Before the scandal, there were many people who speculated that Ensign's career had been trending in the direction of the White House. But, by July of 2009, he was fighting to have a political career of any kind at all.
Finally, in March, he announced he would not run for re-election, telling reporters that "there are consequences to sin." For a time, it looked like he might try to serve out his term, but on April 21, he changed course and announced his resignation, citing "wear and tear" on his familial relationships.
In his farewell speech, Ensign thanked the people he had worked with and highlighted his accomplishments, including "the only bipartisan provision in the so-called Obamacare bill," the Healthy Behaviors Act, which he co-sponsored with Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.). (He subsequently voted against the Affordable Care Act.)
Speaking of healthy behaviors, eventually, Ensign got around to addressing the ethics violations that finally brought him low. Ensign blamed a culture of "power and adulation" that instilled in him an "arrogance" that he apparently believes he fought a brave fight with and ultimately lost. Also, apparently his staff was filled from stem-to-stern with permissive yes-men, or something?
When I first arrived in the senate, I observed several people who were so caught up in their own self-importance and business that arrogance literally dripped from them. Unfortunately, they were blind to it, and everyone could see it but them. When one takes a position of leadership, this is a very real danger of getting caught up in the hype surrounding that status. Oftentimes, the more power and prestige a person achieves, the more arrogant a person can become. As easy as it was for me to view this in other people, unfortunately, I was blind to how arrogant and self-centered that I had become. I did not recognize that -- that I thought mostly of myself. The worst part about this is I even tried not to become caught up in my own self-importance. Unfortunately, the urge to believe in it was stronger than the power to fight it. This is how dangerous the feeling of power and adulation can be.
My caution to all of my colleagues is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you about how you really are and what you are becoming, and then make them promise to not hold back, no matter how much you may try to prevent them, from telling you the truth. I wish that I had done this sooner, but this is one of the hardest lessons that I've had to learn.
Of course, two of the people he had surrounded himself with were the woman he was having an affair with and her husband, so you can imagine the problems here.
Ensign went on to say that he felt bad for harshly judging Senators Larry Craig (R-Id.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alas.) and calling for their resignations when he was up to his neck in undisclosed scandal as well.
I believe that if I had learned this lesson earlier, I would have prevented myself from judging two of my colleagues when I had no place to do so. When I was chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee, I was confronted with the personal issues facing Senator Larry Craig and Senator Ted Stevens. Following Larry's admission and Ted's guilty verdict, I, too, believed in the power of my leadership position and I called on both of them to resign. I sincerely struggled with these decisions afterward, so much so that I went to each of them a few weeks afterward and admitted what I did was wrong and I asked both of them for forgiveness. Each of these men were gracious enough to forgive me, even though publicly I did not show them the same grace. I'm very grateful to both of these men. When I announced my personal failure two years ago, Larry Craig was one of the first to call and to express his support.
"The purpose of me speaking about this," said Ensign, "is to humbly show that in life, a person understands mercy a lot more when they need it and when it is shown to them. Again, this is a hard lesson that I have had to learn, but I hope that I can now show mercy to people who come into my life who truly need it."
Ensign closed out by thanking his wife and children and parents, which is pretty appropriate, seeing as how they ponied up close to $100K in hush money.
Ensign's resignation obviously forestalls any penalty that the Senate Ethics Committee could hand down, but the Committee has the option to "move forward on the months-long investigation by issuing an embarrassing statement regarding the propriety of Ensign's behavior" or "recommend a criminal investigation," according to the Associated Press. Either option would be a largely "symbolic gesture."
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