In Illinois, drawing a moral line in politics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Barney Frank survived it. So did Bill Clinton - albeit with an impeachment - and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In recent years, a growing number of politicians and political candidates have had their names tarnished by sex scandals and yet stayed in power.

Yet Jack Ryan's downfall last week - which began when the Illinois Senate candidate's custody papers were unsealed Monday and culminated in his stepping out of the race on Friday - illustrates that there are limits to what voters will accept, especially in Middle America.

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Now, the Republican party here is left struggling - not only to find a candidate who can mount a credible campaign against popular Democratic candidate Barack Obama, but to minimize the peripheral damage to a party that was already reeling from a different scandal.

Nationally, it makes the loss of a GOP Senate seat - already likely even before the Ryan revelations - even more probable. To politicians across the country, it sends a renewed message about Americans tolerance for scandal - or the appearance of scandal. "Ryan confirms that even today there are some things you cannot survive," says Robert George, a political scientist at Princeton University. "Illinois is interesting because it's not the most conservative state, or the most liberal. It's a pretty good statement of where America is...."

This is the second time in this Senate race that sealed divorce papers have had a devastating effect. During the primary, Democratic candidate Blair Hull was leading in the polls until he released divorce files showing that one of his ex-wives had accused him of abuse and taken out a court order against him.

Ryan was also pressured to unseal his files, but refused, citing protection of his 9-year-old son. When a California judge finally released the files, voters here learned that Ryan's former wife, actress Jeri Ryan, had accused him of taking her to sex clubs and asking her to have sex with him in front of others. Ryan, in the files, denied the charges, admitting only that they had gone to "one avant-garde nightclub," where they both felt uncomfortable and left.

It's rare when a political sex scandal involves neither spousal cheating nor broken laws, nor even sex that actually takes place. But for Illinois residents - and in particular the conservative Republicans and downstate voters to whom Ryan was appealing - the allegations, most experts agree, were just a little too bizarre for him to survive.

"The Republican Party in Illinois has a large component of conservatives and the Christian right. As soon as those headlines came up, Ryan lost a third of his votes," says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and political scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The charges were particularly damaging because Ryan had run on such a clean-cut image: successful businessman who had left investment banking to teach at an inner-city school.

Importance of image

In fact, who the candidate is and the image that he or she creates can have a huge effect on a scandal's impact. Take Mr. Schwarzenegger, and the numerous charges of sexual harassment on movie sets that barely registered in the candidate's standing while he was running for California governor. "You accuse the Terminator of being rough with women, and you're not exactly telling people something that's not in the character they envision for him," says Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."

It's an open question whether Ryan could have handled this in any way that would have saved his candidacy. But the way he did handle it - refusing to release the files until a lawsuit by media outlets unsealed them, and repeatedly denying that they contained embarrassing information - damaged him even more.

Schwarzenegger helped defuse allegations by admitting early on that he was "on some rowdy movie sets" and misbehaved. Representative Frank (D) of Massachusetts, who few believed could survive 1989 revelations that a male prostitute who was his personal assistant ran a prostitution ring out of Frank's apartment, was also helped by speaking openly about the situation.

Media's controversial role

In Ryan's case, the allegations are unproven, and come from a custody dispute - often a minefield of character smears. He's been outspoken in his condemnation of the media, in particular, for pressuring for the release of the divorce papers. In a written statement, he said the move - objected to by both parents - would hurt their ability to co-parent the child and is "truly outrageous."

But others say the media were only doing their job, and that concern about a candidate's private behavior - no matter how irrelevant to the issues - has always been central to voters. Americans have elected on the basis of character "all the way back to George Washington," says Mr. George. "They don't like to elect rogues, even lovable rogues."

Those who do survive racy revelations, from Clinton to Schwarzenegger, often have the full backing of the party to help them - something Ryan didn't. Illinois Republicans cited dishonesty as one reason they abandoned their candidate, saying Ryan had told them there was nothing embarrassing in the files. But they also made a shrewd political assessment that Ryan not only was going to lose, but might bring down other Republicans with him.

The Illinois GOP has been struggling to regain its credibility ever since former Gov. George Ryan (unrelated to Jack) was indicted on corruption charges in 2003. The scandal, which involved state employees, helped the Democrats make significant gains in 2002 - including taking the governor's mansion for the first time since 1976.

In addition, several Congressional seats held by Republicans are now hotly competitive. "Ryan was asked by every member of the Republican hierarchy to get out of the way, not because he was going to lose the race but because he was going to cost the Republican Party so much in Illinois," says Simpson.

The party says it will announce a replacement candidate within the next three weeks. Among those on the list: Ron Gidwitz, a former chairman of the State Board of Education, and two candidates who opposed Ryan in the primary - Steve Rauschenberger and dairy owner Jim Oberweis. The best bet for the party would be a well-known candidate like former governors Jim Edgar or Jim Thompson, or state treasurer Judy Topinka, chairwoman of the state GOP, but all have said they're not interested.

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