What is it with guys named John E?

Elizabeth Edwards’ recent death brought two people to mind: Dr. Samuel Johnson and John Ensign.

Dr. Johnson, known for his dictionary and great phrases, said, “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.” Translation: Tombstones are rarely honest.

Most of Edwards’ obituaries discussed her husband, John Edwards, fathering a child with his mistress. Fewer noted how, even as he sought the presidency, she kept his infidelity secret, which could have affected the country in profound ways.

But she soldiered on through great sadness, including their son’s death in 1996 and her cancer diagnoses. She continued to promote causes important to her and do good works. She hardly merits attack.

Granted, the likeliest person to whom all of this connects is 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who handed his first wife divorce papers as she emerged from cancer surgery. But it was hard not to think of another Republican who shares the initials and some traits of Elizabeth Edwards’ narcissistic spouse and once apparently had enough thoughts about the presidency to journey to Iowa: Nevada’s junior senator.

Taking Ensign seriously—certainly as a potential national candidate—has been hard. He long parroted right-wing Christian talking points. Golf and playing in congressional baseball games seemed to interest him more than legislation. He even disappeared for three weeks in 2002 amid rumors of personal issues.

After two terms in the House, Ensign challenged Reid in 1998 and barely lost. Sen. Richard Bryan’s retirement gave Ensign another shot, and he won the first of two terms in 2000. Despite their earlier troubles, Reid and Ensign achieved a nonaggression pact that Middle East negotiators would envy: as different as the moderate Mormon Democrat and conservative Christian Republican are, they avoided direct attacks. Ensign moved up to run the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, and neither received nor deserved blame for the Democratic sweep in 2008. He seemed destined to rise still higher.

Then came Ensign’s confession to an affair with Cynthia Hampton, his chief of staff’s wife and Darlene Ensign’s close friend. And information about his residence in the C Street house where the religious right dwells in happy hypocrisy. And his parents gifting $96,000 to the Hamptons, opening themselves to legal questions. And investigations, two of which have ended with no harm, no foul, while the Senate Ethics Committee probe continues.

Ensign seemed to overcome his narcissism when he sounded likely to vote to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But he backed off of that. He toured rural Nevada and continued to denigrate government and those who need its benefits. He openly aided Sharron Angle’s campaign by seeking support for her and portraying Reid in debate prep—as compared with 2004, when he had little or nothing to do with Reid’s opponent.

He hailed the Federal Elections Commission and Justice Department dismissing the case as a sign he had done nothing wrong. Other than sleeping with a woman who was both his wife’s close friend and his top aide’s wife; crossing the ethical line by trying to help his cuckolded friend get work; allowing his father, after a long career in gaming, to diminish his reputation; and possibly destroying his effectiveness as a U.S. senator from Nevada. Other than that, nothing wrong, except perhaps the most embarrassing series of ethical lapses by any senator from Nevada ever.

Perhaps he hopes to win over Republicans for 2012, especially with a likely primary challenge from Rep. Dean Heller and maybe Angle. GOP strategists have complained about Ensign’s lack of interest in building his party (compared with Reid, who has done a lot to build the Nevada Democratic party), and how that has left Republicans less willing to give him a break.

Will voters forgive him? His early polling numbers are better than expected, but he can ask Reid about what polls mean. Normally, a politician’s personal life isn’t all that important unless he proposes to interfere in others’ lives, a scenario that seems more common among Republicans. The other John E. was on the opposite side, but being egomaniacal and reckless opened him to whatever disgust he has earned.

Ensign deserves our disgust. He should be wondering, ideally far down the road, what his lapidary inscription will say. His political tombstone, ideally ready for use, is another matter.

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