Edwin Edwards - not to be confused with John Edwards - is still in prison, serving six years for taking a bribe, but John Ensign should have called him for advice before he confessed at needless length to adultery, which in certain precincts is still a more grievous crime than stealing.
Mr. Edwards, the one-time governor of the “gret stet of Louisiana,” famously boasted that he would never be brought down “unless they catch me in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” That was before the feds brought him down for a crime involving only a bag of cash. Louisiana is notoriously forgiving of its politicians, in part because voters there have had a lot of practice, and in part because fun on the bayou, naughty and not, is fun: “Laissez le bon temps rouler.” Let the good times roll. If the Edwards formula once worked in New Orleans, you might think it would work in Nevada, since Las Vegas is not necessarily where you should start the search if you’re looking for a moral value.
More recently a junior senator from Louisiana was the object of considerable sport in his home state after his name appeared in a Washington madam’s little black book. He was censured not so much for betraying his wife but that with all the talent available on Capitol Hill the senator had employed the services of a madam. Other members of Congress rarely look beyond their office suites for forbidden sweets; why should their senator be so backward in the pursuit of amours? He made the home folks look bad.
Mr. Ensign’s misfortune inevitably becomes grist for the capital’s gossip mills and Washington jokesmiths, such as they are. The correspondents, columnists and the freelance pundits of the blogosphere are of course shocked - shocked! - that Mr. Ensign, who scolded Bill Clinton for running a crib off the Oval Office and Sen. Larry Craig for his men’s room ablutions, should have so easily succumbed to the temptations of feminine favors to which he was not entitled, either by law or moral custom. This was proof of hypocrisy, the highest crime and the most evil misdemeanor that a Washington journalist, being the closest approximation we have to a figure of perfect character and unsullied virtue, can imagine.
Washington journalists love nothing better than a scandal with a whiff of the boudoir (even if the boudoir is a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport), and most of them grade on a steep curve of moral equivalence. Not everybody is an expert on politics, but everybody is an authority, if not necessarily an expert, on matters of sex.
Congressional Democrats are more likely to grant a pass for naughty conduct than Republicans. This is not necessarily driven by political ideology. Republicans are no less likely to fall to temptation, but are more likely to understand that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Republicans generally pay a dearer price to their constituents. Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Robert Livingston of Louisiana each had to give up the position of Speaker of the House when caught in embarrassing indiscretions. When Rep. Barney Frank got caught allowing his live-in male lover to run a whorehouse in their apartment, the House censured him (though calling it a “reprimand”) and his constituents in starchy Massachusetts continued to return him to Washington by wide margins.
There’s nothing particularly sordid in the Ensign affair. His friendship with an employee in his office developed into something more intimate while he was separated from his wife. He described what he had done, at greater length than he need have. He stood up like a man in the way that other congressional miscreants before him did not do. He did it alone; the usual congressional perp walk includes the offended wife, who tries to put a smile on a teary face and pretend eagerness to get on with a life with the man who done her wrong.
This has become an honored Washington ritual, like the grim procession to the Tyburn gallows in 17th century London, with townspeople taunting the condemned on his way to the torture of the damned. The irony is that we should expect anything better from “our only native criminal class,” as Mark Twain described Congress. But Congress, after all, is only a reflection of a culture saturated by deception, knavery and violence. The popular entertainment is a catalog of sexual guile. Anything goes. A popular comedian makes a joke about the rape of a child and the national argument is not about who should horsewhip the comedian, but about whether he owed anyone an apology. We all live in Las Vegas now. Uh, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.