Jewish World Review July 2, 2004 /13 Tamuz 5764
The 'no-sex' scandal
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 the days of John F. Kennedy, you may recall, reporters looked the other way when there were rumors of a president having sexual playmates running through White House bedrooms. Today an otherwise decent-enough Harvard law grad like Ryan, a wealthy investment banker who became a teacher at a Chicago urban high school, is forced out of the contest because his ex-wife says she did not like the kind of sex he allegedly wanted to have with her.
So says his ex, TV actress Jeri Lynn Ryan of "Boston Public" and "Star Trek: Voyager" fame, in court papers she filed during what sounds like a very nasty child-custody dispute. She alleged that in 1998 he took her to sex clubs in Paris, New York and New Orleans and tried unsuccessfully to persuade 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-Ch. 7 lawsuit that unsealed 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 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 be asking ourselves whether we are beginning to ratchet the bar up too high for mere mortals who might have an interest 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, Ryan's biggest sin was to assure top Illinois Republicans like state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the GOP's state chairwoman, and former Gov. Jim Edgar that the divorce documents were nothing to worry about when rumors about the papers surfaced.
With that, Ryan violated an age-old political commandment: Thou shalt not fudge the truth with thine 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 for sealing the records. Thou shalt not fudge the truth with the media, either.
When the records were opened, Ryan's political stock plummeted. Contributors dried up. Republican leaders turned their backs on him. Polls showed Ryan falling more than 20 points behind his infectiously likable Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), another Harvard Law School graduate.
I am delighted for Obama. He may soon become the third black senator since Reconstruction and I think he will make a good one. I also think Obama's expression of sympathy for Ryan's predicament was genuine. After all, Obama was too far ahead in the polls already to need an ugly exit by his opponent to win.
Besides, Jack Ryan was not charged with something truly serious like 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 a root canal than run for public office.
It is politically ironic that Ryan found himself caught up in the new Puritanism that 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 Ryan to have kept his skeletons in his closet. Like the Indianapolis 500 track, our public curiosity about public officials only seems to speed up. In cases like Ryan's, I think it should slow down.
The real world is complicated. So are real people. Abraham Lincoln, one of the first Illinois Republicans, once said, "It has been my experience 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 that we are human.
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