June 30, 2004

Turning the Page on Jack Ryan

Today's Musical Selection: "I Truly, Truly Believe" by the Temptations

Hello there, everyone. Today I want to take on final look back at the abandoned Senate campaign of Jack Ryan, courtesy of Clarence Page, who wrote a column I rather liked on the subject. This column is one of my favorite types: it makes a compelling, intriguing argument in support of a conclusion that I don't agree with. This is good because it forces me to engage my mind and figure out a counterargument. (Nothing's more fun than arguing with the newspaper.) Let's take a look at Page's argument, and the places where we part company.

Page believes that Ryan was hounded out of the race unfairly, exposed by a prying press that doesn't acknowledge a zone of privacy around public officials, and shoved overboard by fuming party leaders who were mad that Ryan lied to them. It's a sex scandal without the sex, Page argues. If this is enough to drive someone out of the race, aren't we setting a hugely unrealistic standard for personal conduct that drives away good candidates? It's a solid argument, and Page presents it well. However, it's also an argument with weaknesses, most of which Page cleverly conceals in throwaway lines. Take a look and you'll see what I mean.

Page comes on strong, making a case for the manifest unfairness of Ryan's departure:

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.

The term "injustice" caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I was nodding along with this passage right up until that last sentence. "His ex-wife says she did not like the kind of sex he allegedly wanted to have with her"? Oh, is that all?

In fact, that is not all. Page's breezy phrasing is so broad that, at least in theory, it could include rape as acceptable. But never mind that. What happened here is not just that Jack wanted to do it doggy-style and Jeri didn't feel like it. What happened was that Jack took Jeri to sex clubs without her knowledge, publicly humiliated her, and tried to pressure her to do something against her wishes. Repeatedly. As one commenter correctly pointed out last week, that's emotional abuse.

And the fact that Jeri now says that Jack's a good guy is immaterial. Unfortunately, even some victims of physical abuse will swear up and down that the abuser is a good person who's just "human" or "misunderstood." And despite Jeri's statement that Jack would make a good senator, she also stood by the charges she made. Take that for what you will.

Let's return to Page for a bit:

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...

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.

Hold it. Stop right there. See what he's doing here? He's implying that Jeri Ryan was making up (or at least trumping up) the incidents in service of her custody case. He implies that she "regrets" it now, particularly the "embarrassment" for everyone. Patronize much?

I find it a touch irritating that Page tries to dismiss the incident with "Who's right? Who cares?" and then implies that she's wrong. "It doesn't matter that she's wrong," is what that amounts to. And I reiterate that she stood by the charges. If she's feeling any "regret" over making them, she's doing an admirable job of concealing it. I think the only "regret" here is on Jack's side.

Back to Clarence:

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.

Wrong. I mean, it's right in a sense: I mentioned last week the problems with the public sentiment that sexual shenanigans are okay as long as you don't lie about them. But let's get real: Ryan's biggest sin was that Barack Obama was wiping the walls with him.

I'm sure Topinka and Co. were upset that Ryan lied to them, but if he'd been 20 points up in the polls, do you think they'd have made a public stink about it? No, of course not. They'd have chewed him out behind closed doors, made him sweat a little, then come out and told the media that it was all cleared up. Party leaders only ream out candidates in public when those candidates are dead men walking.

And Ryan was already a turkey of a candidate, losing to Obama by wide margins even before the scandal broke. Page tries to conceal this:

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.

The part about contributors and Republican leaders is accurate, but Page makes it sound like the race was neck-and-neck before. In fact, Ryan was already 20 points behind Obama. Weak candidates who are plagued by scandal become ex-candidates in a hurry. Strong candidates plagued by scandal become folk heroes. Ask Bill Clinton.

About the media: Page is absolutely right that the media consider candidates lying to them a sin of the first order. But again, Ryan was already flailing. This scandal just finished him off.

Next, Page offers some praise for Obama, and curiously admits that the Democrat was cruising to victory anyway, after concealing the fact in the previous paragraph.

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.

I think Page's admiration for Obama is genuine, and from what I understand, the praise is deserved. Kudos to Page for realizing that you can feel one candidate got shafted without disliking the other one.

In his next passage, however, Page voyages back into the arguments that I didn't buy the first time:

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.

Again, I'd have to argue that emoitonally abusing your spouse is "truly serious," but we've covered that ground already. And here we go again with discrediting Jeri's testimony as "highly heated and questionable." When Democratic contender Blair Hull found himself in a media firestorm due to allegations of abuse in his divorce papers, no one was calling his ex-spouse's testimony "highly heated and questionable." Not even Page, I'll bet. So I guess the lesson is: If you're going to make accusations in divorce cases, aim high.

And this raises the central question: Are divorce papers fair territory for public inquiry, or not? After all, it's not practical to say we should only look at divorce cases that contain serious charges, since we don't know what's in the files unless we look. And who's to say what consitutes inappropriate behavior?

Let's take this argument from another angle. Were the accusations in Blair Hull's file troubling? Most people would say yes. Disqualifying from office? Most people would say so. Does the seriousness of the allegations trump Hull's right to privacy? If you say yes, everyone's divorce file is open, because who knows which files might contain allegations like Hull's?

Now, let's look at Ryan's file. Are those allegations sufficient to disqualify him? Clarence Page says no. But Ray LaHood says yes. So does the Peoria Journal-Star. It's a matter of opinion. So it's one way or another: either everyone's divorce files are off-limits, or they're all open, and the people judge for themselves the seriousness of any allegations contained therein.

Page winds into the rhetorical home stretch at this point, so I'll let him have his moment:

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.

This argument works if you believe Ryan's transgressions are minor. But what if you don't? This, alas, is a discussion we're largely having in retrtospect, since Ryan didn't stay in the race long enough to have a full public debate.

Let us reiterate what happened here: The media noticed that Ryan was hiding his files. Being journalists, they figured something good must be in there, so they clamored for a look. And once the word was out, the Republicans took one look at the candidate, realized he was non-viable, and forced him out. It was a convenient excuse as much as anything.

So, Clarence, I'm willing to join you in a discussion of what constitutes a proper zone of privacy for political candidates. But let's not kid ourselves that that happened here. And let's not kid ourselves that Jack Ryan was a victim of anything other than his own ineptness as a candidate.

I was watching SportsCenter last night, and they interviewed Tracy McGrady about his trade to Houston. McGrady was acquitting himself fairly well, saying all the good political things about how the trade was good for both sides, and then the interviewer asked him about what went wrong in his relationship with Orlando. He said, and I quote: "It wasn't no communication."

Now, here's a free tip from me to athletes everywhere: If you want people to take you seriously when you're describing a lack of dialogue between you and the front office, do not say, "It wasn't no communication." How could there be?

That's all for today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at June 30, 2004 05:02 PM
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