- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

An injustice of sorts has been committed upon Jack Ryan. The Illinois Republican ex-candidate for the U.S. Senate may be the first politician to be brought down by a sex scandal without having sex.

As recently as John F. Kennedy’s day, you may recall, a president could have sexual playmates running through White House bedrooms while news reporters looked the other way.

Today, an otherwise decent-enough Harvard Law grad like Mr. Ryan, a wealthy investment banker who became a teacher at a predominately black urban high school, is forced out of the contest because his former wife says she did not like the kind of sex she claimed he wanted to have with her.

His ex, TV actor Jeri Lynn Ryan of “Boston Public” and “Star Trek: Voyager” fame, made the claims in court papers she filed in what sounds like a very nasty child custody dispute. She claimed in 1998 he took her to Paris, New York and New Orleans sex clubs and tried unsuccessfully urged her to perform sexual acts in front of strangers. Her ex denies the allegations.

He says; she says. Who’s right? Who cares? The Chicago Tribune and WLS-TV lawsuit that unsealed Mr. Ryan’s records cited the public’s right to know. I’m a big believer in the public’s right to know. But in a case like Mr. Ryan’s no-sex scandal, I question the public’s need to know.

Excuse me, folks, but when candidates don’t even have to have sex to be brought down by a sex scandal, we should ask ourselves whether we are beginning to ratchet the bar up too high for mere mortals who might be interested in public service.

Child custody fights can be ruthless. Accusations and exaggerations get thrown around that both parties sometimes regret after the dust settles. Only the court papers live on, ready to embarrass one party or the other, if the rest of us choose to be embarrassed.

In the real world of politics, Mr. Ryan’s biggest sin was to assure top Republicans like state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the party’s state chair, and former Gov. Jim Edgar that the divorce documents were nothing to worry about when rumors about the papers surfaced. With that, Mr. Ryan violated an age-old political commandment: Thou shalt not fudge the truth with thy party’s bosses.

He also offended numerous sensibilities by insisting to reporters that he sealed the records to protect their son, now 9, even though court papers indicate his political aspirations, not his son, were his principal reason. Thou shalt not fudge the truth with the media, either.

When the records were opened, Mr. Ryan’s political stock plummeted. Contributors dried up. County Republican leaders turned their backs on him. Polls showed Mr. Ryan falling more than 20 points behind his infectiously likable Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barack Obama, another Harvard Law grad.

I am delighted for Mr. Obama. He may soon become the third black senator since Reconstruction, and I think he will make a good one. But I think Mr. Obama’s expression of sympathy for Mr. Ryan’s predicament was genuine. After all, Mr. Obama was too far ahead in the polls already to need an ugly exit by his opponent in order to win.

Besides, Jack Ryan was not charged with something truly serious, such as assault or adultery — just allegedly attempted kinkiness within the privacy of his ultimately failed marriage, according to the highly heated and questionable testimony in divorce papers. If that’s all it takes to knock off an otherwise worthy candidate, we need no longer wonder why more bright, talented and qualified people in this great land of ours would rather have root canal work than run for public office.

It is politically ironic that Mr. Ryan found himself caught up in the new Puritanism his party has played a central role in escalating in recent years. Even if my media colleagues had not gone to court for the papers, it would have been very hard for Mr. Ryan to keep his skeletons in the closet. Like the Indianapolis 500 track, our public curiosity about public officials only seems to speed up. In cases like Mr. Ryan’s, I think it should slow down.

The real world is complicated. So are real people. “It has been my experience,” Abraham Lincoln, one of the first Illinois Republicans, once said, “that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” Honest Abe had the right idea. Minor indiscretions do not necessarily make us unfit for public service. They only show we are human.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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