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Sen. John Ensign's Admission of an Affair Is Tame by Comparison

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Heading into the second full day of John Ensign self-immolation watch, we check in with crisis management professionals to learn exactly How Deep a Mess He's In.

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The message is: Senator, if you want to shock us, you are going to have to do worse than that.

Details about the Nevada lawmaker's affair with a former campaign staffer, which he publicly admitted Tuesday, are still emerging. There could yet be salacious revelations beyond our wildest imaginations.

But -- and here's Ensign's lucky break -- our imaginations when it comes to political scandals have gotten pretty wild. Mostly because, in recent years, we have seen some seriously "Law & Order"-worthy stuff: Sting operations in bathroom stalls (Larry Craig). Lewd IM exchanges with underage pages (Mark Foley). Prostitution rings frequented by a governor who spearheaded prosecution of prostitution rings (Eliot Spitzer). Plus, John Edwards. Plus, Kwame Kilpatrick. Plus, David Vitter.

The Ensign affair "is really vanilla," says Eric Dezenhall of the Washington crisis management firm Dezenhall Resources. "The thing about Edwards and Craig and Foley and Spitzer is that they had a radioactive element. Not all crises are created equal." This one, at least, is "on the grid. It's not an exotic type of thing."

Heterosexual politician cheats on wife with consenting female family friend? Not that it doesn't have its own seething outrage factor (Hypocrisy angles: He's a Republican Promise Keeper who condemned those who had committed similar acts). . . . It's just that the bar for slimy extra-political behavior has been set so very, very high.

"I'm sure that from his perspective and his wife's perspective, it's huge," says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville. But in terms of the general public . . . "well, it depends on who you talk to. People today do a 'Ho-hum, boy, heard that before.' "

Handled properly, Dezenhall says, this could all eventually go away. And so far, all the handling has been nearly flawless.

"He was able to control the story by running to it, not away from it," says Michael Robinson of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. There was no National Enquirer gotcha photo, no wiretaps or sheaves of naughty text messages. There was only the news conference, the I'm-just-a-man admissions of his own weakness, the no questions, please.

His solo appearance (unlike the wives of other fallen pols, Darlene Ensign conspicuously chose not to stand by her man, though her statement insists they're reconciled) also gets a nod of approval. "We counsel men not to have their wives standing there," Smith says. When women do, viewers "see hurt, they see pain . . . and it just makes him look that much more guilty."

He's even dressed in proper apology attire: "He's not wearing a power suit," notes Scott Sobel of D.C. PR firm Media & Communication Strategies. "He chose vulnerability. You don't want to walk out there with a suit and a red tie the way you might during an official conference." It's better to look like a private citizen: humbled, faulty, apologetic.

It's kind of a relief to get a bland, by-the-book scandal. We were having a hard time keeping everyone's seedy sexual proclivities straight, we got tired of making jokes about wide stances or Client 9. Even the best jokes for Ensign feel not worth making. He's from Nevada! Home of Las Vegas! Get it? Guess what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in . . . Oh, never mind. Or: Hey, remember in "Godfather II," when a Nevada senator sleeps with a prostitute, and . . . no? Okay.

Maybe this will all blow over soon, without even a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. We hope so. (We officially hope so.)

Or maybe it will still get really big. Is it not too late for naughty text messages? Might there still be witnesses coming out of the woodwork? How many ways can scandal exponentially increase?

The schadenfreude of watching politicians crash and burn is a delectable guilty pleasure.

Our own admission: Even when we're not easily impressed, we still can't look away.


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