A sexless sex scandal shouldn't end candidacy

July 01, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- 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 School grad such as Mr. 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. Mr. Ryan denies the allegations.

He says, she says. Who's right? Who cares? The Chicago Tribune and WLS lawsuit that unsealed Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Ryan's biggest sin was to assure top Illinois Republicans such as 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, Mr. Ryan violated an age-old political commandment: Thou shalt not fudge the truth with thy 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, Mr. Ryan's political stock plummeted. Contributors dried up. Republican leaders turned their backs on him. Polls showed Mr. Ryan falling more than 20 points behind his infectiously likable Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barack Obama, another Harvard law graduate.

I am delighted for Mr. Obama. He may soon become the third black senator since Reconstruction, and I think he will make a good one. I also think Mr. Obama's expression of sympathy for Mr. Ryan's predicament was genuine. After all, Mr. Obama was too far ahead in the polls already to need an ugly exit by his opponent to win.

Besides, Mr. Ryan was not charged with something truly serious such as assault or adultery, just alleged 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.

Like the Indianapolis 500 track, our public curiosity about public officials only seems to speed up. In cases such as Mr. 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.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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