Struggling to keep his promises

608px-scarletletterblacksvgThe world-weary folks at the Washington Post Style section have made it official — the Sen. John Ensign affair is just no fun at all.

Part of the problem is that the senator is running toward the story rather than away from it. To put this in Beltway speak, he followed the age old mantra: Hang a lantern on your problem. Here’s a chunk of the intentionally boring Style report:

Heterosexual politician cheats on wife with consenting female family friend? Not that it doesn’t have its own seething outrage factor (Hypocrisy angles: He’s a Republican Promise Keeper who condemned those who had committed similar acts). … It’s just that the bar for slimy extra-political behavior has been set so very, very high. …

Handled properly, … this could all eventually go away. And so far, all the handling has been nearly flawless.

“He was able to control the story by running to it, not away from it,” says Michael Robinson of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. There was no National Enquirer gotcha photo, no wiretaps or sheaves of naughty text messages. There was only the news conference, the I’m-just-a-man admissions of his own weakness, the no questions, please.

Yes, there is a bit of the “what happens in Nevada, stays in Nevada” angle to this. But you can see the religion angle of the story sticking out there — as it has in almost every mainstream story about Ensign’s sin. The man has backed the Promise Keeper’s Movement and he failed to keep his promise. When you’re playing by biblical rules, it doesn’t matter that the affair took place during a time when he and his wive agreed to a time of separation.

Here’s another typical passage on that theme, adding the scarlet “born again” label, from The Politico:

A staunch fiscal and social conservative, Ensign has been considered a rising star in his party, recently making headlines by speaking at events in Iowa, raising speculation about his interest in a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.

A born-again Christian, Ensign has been a member of the Promise Keepers, a male evangelical group that promotes marital fidelity.

And one more time, from the Los Angeles Times:

The senator also could be vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. He belongs to Promise Keepers, a Christian group whose members pledge, among other things, to abide by biblical principles to build strong marriages.

As a candidate for the Senate, Ensign demanded that President Clinton resign after having an affair with a White House intern. He also voted to impeach Clinton. Years later, Ensign strongly suggested that Sen. Larry Craig resign in the wake of his arrest in a 2007 airport bathroom sex sting in Minneapolis. The Idaho Republican pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

john_ensign-thumb-400x292This story may still have legs and there is always a possibility that, in trying to clean up the mess, Ensign took some actions that stretched the laws of man as well as those of God. However, it does seem that reporters are missing part of the story here, when it comes to the Promise Keepers.

Yes, that movement stressed fidelity in marriage. But one of its strengths was its efforts to get men to come clean about their sins — from workaholism to infidelity, from porn to alcohol — and then to seek reconciliation with their wives and families. The defining moment of a Promise Keeper’s rally was a wave of men heading to the altar to repent, not to claim that they were without sin.

Thus, for cultural conservatives, the crucial part of this story is that Ensign has outed himself and then condemned his own actions. The Los Angeles Times used this quote:

“It’s absolutely the worst thing I have ever done in my life,” he said at a televised news conference. “If there was ever anything that I could take back in my life, this would be it.”

The senator’s wife also released a statement that, together, they had sought out a counselor and are seeking to pull their marriage back together, with the support of their children.

So, a hypocrite? Yes. That’s pretty normal for human behavior.

A repentant sinner? You bet. Ensign called a sin a sin.

Reconciled? That’s the hard part and that’s what the Promise Keeper’s Movement was all about.

In other words, there’s a story behind this story, even if it’s a little boring and lacks true Beltway style.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan Crawford

    “When you’re playing by biblical rules, it doesn’t matter that the affair took place during a time when he and his wive agreed to a time of separation.”

    Actually, I’m more intrigued by the story behind the story of your sentence, Terry. You seem to be suggesting that adultery is not adultery when the parties are separated. I know that’s the Hollywood view. Is it yours?

  • tmatt


    Oh, no way. Adultery is adultery. However, in terms of Beltway code, the separation made this a lower offense. Thus, it has been mentioned in several stories.

  • blestou

    I’ve attended some Promise Keeper events. How exactly does one “belong” to PK? Promise Keepers is essentially a small organization that hosts big rallies, publishes some books, and inspires smaller, formally unrelated groups to emulate them. PK is not something with “members” that anyone can “join.” The PK angle is over-hyped by those who want to sensationalize the story.

    From a civil perspective (where are all those clamoring to get religion out of politics when a “Promise Keeper” does wrong?) Ensign’s sin is small potatoes. From a evangelical religious perspective, he has done what you are supposed to do when you commit a screw-up of this caliber – confess, repent, seek reconciliation, and don’t do it again.

    This story is further proof for me that the newsroom is fundamentally at odds with religious people.

  • Pingback: Posts about Politico as of June 18, 2009 » The Daily Parr

  • Julia

    If you are in AA and make a slip, you are not a hypocrite. If you try to live up to the Promise Keepers values and slip up, you are not a hypocrite, even you made public promises at a rally. But if you make public speeches about being faithful and continue to be unfaithful even while you slip up and don’t believe what you are saying, then you are a hypocrite.

    I think hypocracy is being confused with not being perfect i.e. not living up to your own ideals. There seems to be an assumption that people with higher standards than the reporter, or other people who don’t share the same beliefs, are all claiming to be holier than thou. I think that’s what is behind all the sniping at Bible-thumpers, etc., too.

    It’s the assumption that such people think they are better than everybody else. Actually, most such people are more aware than others that temptation is out there, the flesh is weak and we all need help to stay on course.

    This is also the assumption behind all the ragging on Sarah Palin and her daughters; i.e. they are parading themselves around as better than other people. I also keep reading that Sarah and Bristol are pushing abstinence-only. That’s just not true but it spices up the hypocracy story.

    Churches and Promise Keepers and the like are for sinners who know they need help. They don’t offer anything to people who think they are already saints.

  • Julia

    But if you make public speeches about being faithful and continue to be unfaithful even while you slip up and don’t believe what you are saying, then you are a hypocrite.

    Correct that to say: But if you make public speeches about being faithful and continue to preach to others on faithfulness even while you continue to be unfaithful, and don’t believe what you are saying, then you are a hypocrite.

  • tmatt

    Spiking away.

    Please try to comment on the journalism, please. Take the pot shots at the personalities elsewhere.

  • SteveP

    Perhaps this is not a story in which the press does not get religion. Perhaps it’s just what the press does: muckrake.

    Clearly Ensign’s Promise Keepers involvement does not have any bearing on the reportage of his affair confession; the only story-behind-the-story is the writer’s story and how they used Ensign, among others, as a jump start for an attempt at journalistic moralizing.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    It seems to me that the real stories here, neither of which which is getting enough play, are not about religion but about legal matters.

    First, there’s the question of abusing your authority in a work relationship — this was an affair with one of his employees, which in most workplaces constitutes sexual harassment. That’s worth exploring if is serious about a presidential run, since its the sort of thing that has caused trouble in the Oval office within recent memory.

    And second, there is the apparent fact that this only became public when Ensign was the victim of an attempted blackmail by the wronged husband. While not brilliantly original, that angle seems at least a little less cliched than the old “religious hypocrisy” narrative.

  • Ethos

    You found the wrong scarlet letter I’m afraid.

  • Harris

    Zach Roth at TPMMuckraker reports that Hampton was also in Promise Keepers. Off-hand, that suggests another level of betrayal. Roth goes on to speculate that such is the case, that Hampton may have been an example of the accountability male friendship encouraged by PK:
    “pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.”

    As to the muckraking, at lest at TPM, they smell varieties of monetary mischief in the employment of the Hampton’s son. …

  • Fred

    Sexual harassment in the workplace is against federal law,whether a Senator,CEO or middle management– Would this Senator have come clean had not the young lady and her husband decided to come forward? …

  • Fred

    Read his Clinton comments–Maybe ‘Holier-Than-thou would have been a better term– Remember, this Senator was a Christian, which means Christ-Like—Have you read the ’7 Promises’ of Promise Keepers?? This man was a representative of Jesus–

  • tmatt

    Spiking away, again.

    Please stay on the journalism, folks. If more information is reported about the situation that puts it into legal territory, then that will be part of the story.

    The sexual harassment angle is interesting, but something about the situation led the Washington Post Style pages — not exactly a right-wing crowd — to dismiss that angle.

    We’ll see.

    I was simply trying to critique the religion angle OF THE COVERAGE.

  • Dave

    Knowing next to nothing about the internal affairs of the Promise Keepers I am intrigued by blestou’s remarks about PK membership. This puts PK into a class with other sponsors of men’s movement gatherings, not with membership men’s movement organizations. Coverage of Ensign’s involvement with PK may be completely irrelevant, a fishing expedition into his associations and thus a further intrusion into his private life.

    Of course there’s the political/religious angle that during its heyday PK was heavily funded by the Christian Right, but that has nothing to do with Ensign.

  • James P. McCampbell

    The plot thickens…According to the offended husband attempted (before Ensign’s revelations) to contact both Fox news and Ensign’s friend and colleague, Tom Coburn about the affair. Here is one key excerpt from an e-mail sent to Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly “Please help me! This should not be how the leadership of our country should be allowed to behave.”


    As of now apparently most of the interns in John Ensign’s office are desperate to get the heck out of dodge and are sending out emails seeking safe haven anywhere other than Ensign’s tainted office.

    Even Ensign and his allies are now backing away from the “blackmail” angle. If you suggest a felony like blackmail/extortion has taken place that might bring even more unwelcome attention from law enforcement, who may ask questions like “why were you paying every member of the family of your lover significant amounts of money with funds from taxpayer accounts?”

    That is a question that fellow Republicans may want to ask of the man who has been running their senate campaigns these past two election cycles, when precious money was needed to save what was left of their presence in the Senate.

    So the assertion by tmatt that John Ensign has in actuality fulfilled his obligations as a Promise Keeper by revealing his affair may be falling apart. I suspect there were more profound acts of misbehavior that this man has yet to reveal. And I have a hard time buying any motive he claims is the reason why he has decided to discuss his transgressions.

  • tmatt


    When more information comes out, we’ll try to deal with it.

    You guys are arguing politics and emerging revelations. All I have tried to do is deal with the religion element of the coverage that has emerged so far. Stay tuned. But please try to focus on what we do here, which is discuss the mainstream press’ attempts to cover religion.

  • James P. McCampbell


    I find your plea for the focus to remain on how religion is being covered by the mainstream media interesting. I think part of the problem of discussing this story in regards to John Ensign is the nature of the figure himself. How can the media respectfully and carefully cover the religious angle when dealing with a man who has so completely blurred (or warped) the boundaries between his politics, his personal life and what is currently left of his religion?

  • tmatt


    That will be hard.

    But it will start with accurate information about what Promise Keepers was and is and how what Ensign is saying does or does not fit into that, for better or for worse.

    The whole point of my post was about Promise Keepers, not the senator. If reporters were going to raise that issue they needed to get the facts right.

  • Fred

    OK, here are some things about Ensign and Promise Keepers that seem to be missing from press coverage: How many PK events (rallies) did he go to? Just one? or more than one? When did he go (how long ago)? Which ones did he go to? Did he go to Stand in the Gap in 1997? Was he a financial backer of PK? Did his local church have a men’s ministry based on PK principles, and was he an active part of it? What kind of a church does he belong to? And so on.

    As someone who went to three PK rallies in the 1990′s and also was at Stand in the Gap, I can tell you that you don’t “belong” to PK so much as you go their rallies. (Actually, that all should be in the past tense. Ever since 2000 or 2001, PK has practically disappeared. In its place, there have emerged a host of other men’s movements such as Iron Sharpens Iron. There was a point where PK shut down operations; I forget exactly when.)