Ensign’s farewell: Unnoticed, but with effects

It’s hard not to think of John Ensign being the only senator on the floor during his farewell speech as an empty suit saying goodbye to an empty room.  But his valedictory spoke volumes.

First, the only other senator in the room was Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat, and that was only because he was the presiding officer (a common duty for a junior member — Ensign himself did it in his early days when Republicans were in control).  Usually, a senator leaving office bids adieu to the institution, and at least a couple of others speak of how much they will miss their colleague.  Granted, those goodbyes usually follow a defeat or retirement, not a resignation in disgrace.  But in this case, no one wished to be linked to Ensign. It seems possible, though, that if further details emerge and the Senate Ethics Committee asks the Justice Department to get back into the case, some Nevada Republicans will be tied to him (or at least Democrats will try).

Second, Ensign discussed his “arrogance” and apologized to two former Republican colleagues he condemned for their alleged misbehavior:  Larry Craig of Idaho for apparently looking for gay sex in a Minneapolis airport men’s room, and the late Ted Stevens of Alaska over financial questions.  Yet his arrogance remained.  He didn’t apologize to Bill Clinton, whose lies about his sex life led to his impeachment, which Ensign supported.  But that was when Ensign was in the House?  So was a bill from 1998 that he cited as his proudest achievement in Congress.  He remembered that.  Nor did he mention his numerous speeches and votes telling people how to live their lives while he lived lies.

Third, it’s time to add another comparison to Jim Gibbons.  When the former governor was a representative (And does anyone recall he was skipped over for Intelligence Committee chair?  One wonders about the possibility of him getting a briefing from the president on Osama Bin Laden.), he delivered regular one-minute speeches to an empty chamber.  Why would no one want to listen to them?

Fourth, Ensign did little during his tenure on behalf of fellow Republicans, and his departure from office positions him to do his party still more damage.  If Ensign hadn’t been a hypocrite in his personal life, the GOP candidate for the Senate in 2012 would have been a two-term darling of his national party rather than newbie Dean Heller. The national GOP wouldn’t have to pour as many resources into Nevada as it will have to at the expense of other races.  His opponent wouldn’t be Shelley Berkley, a seven-term representative with a lot of popularity in Clark County and considerable campaign experience, but instead another sacrificial lamb.  The special election for Heller’s old House seat, vacated with his appointment to the Senate, wouldn’t happen and Democrats would have their usual chances of winning that district — about the same as a snowball surviving Hades — instead of having a real shot (see this week’s Vegas Seven politics column for more details).

Ensign managed to create political and personal chaos with his behavior.  His departure may remove him as a source of attention — but not the chaos.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.