Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Jack Ryan: a "sexless sex scandal"

Jack Ryan and ex-wife Jeri Ryan. Photo from cbsnews.com

Given the recent scandal involving Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, it seems like a prudent time to look at a fairly recent Illinois scandal that also indirectly relates to Barack Obama. In 2004, Obama won his seat in the U.S. Senate, owing quite a bit to a couple of messy divorces on both sides of the aisle.

Jack Ryan, 44 at the time he ran for the Senate in 2004, earned a total of three degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard. After working with the Goldman Sachs investment firm, he left the financial sector in 2000 to become a teacher at the Hales Franciscan High School, a parochial school for boys in Chicago. His bid to replace Republican Peter G. Fitzgerald, who had won the Senate seat in 1998 and was opting not to run for re-election, was Ryan's first attempt at political office. He won the nomination on March 16, the same day Obama won the Democratic nomination.

Obama had been trailing in his race until the divorce records of frontrunner M. Blair Hull became public. Brenda Sexton, who had twice been married to Hull, accused him of physically attacking her and threatening her life. In addition to knocking Hull out of the top spot, the findings led to increased curiousity over Ryan's own divorce from Jeri Ryan, a television actress best known for her roles in Star Trek: Voyager and Boston Public, in 1999. His Republican opponents in the primary had called for the unsealing of the records, and following his nomination the Chicago Tribune and a Chicago television station sued for access to them.

Ryan's files had initially been open, but he successfully had them sealed in 2001 on the argument that doing so would protect his young son. There were signs, however, that the file might contain some interesting information. In 2000, Ryan had tried to seal portions of the documents that a judge said might contain "inflammatory, inappropriate, and embarrassing material," but failed; on that occasion, Jeri Ryan's lawyers had argued that he was attempting to seal the documents because they could be potentially dangerous to a political career. During the 2004 campaign, Ryan said he would not let the Democrats use his divorce records as ammunition; his lawyer said there would be a "feeding frenzy" if they were released and that the documents would be distorted. Jeri Ryan also came out against releasing the records.

A California judge ruled on March 29 that some of the records should be unsealed, once a court-appointed official had determined which documents would negatively affect the Ryans' then 9-year-old son. On June 21, several documents were unsealed.

The effect on Ryan's campaign was immediate and catastrophic. In the divorce records, Jeri Ryan said her husband had taken her to sex clubs in New York City, New Orleans, and Paris in the late 1990s and tried to get her to have sex in front of other people. The clubs in New York were described as containing whips and chains and other materials. She stated that the Paris sex club made her physically ill, and that she lost attraction for Ryan when he told her "it was not a 'turn-on' for me to cry."

Ryan had denounced the claims when they were first made as libelous and "smut." When they resurfaced, he referred to his original statement but did not reaffirm the denial. Ryan said he did arrange "romantic getaways" for he and his wife, and that they had briefly gone to an "avant-garde" club in Paris that neither had been comfortable at. He called the focus on the divorce "a new low for politics."

Though his main argument was that the divorce was a non-issue, Ryan curiously sought to put a positive spin on the accusations. In a radio interview the day after the revelations, he said that the accusations were not an indication that he broke any laws or commandments, stating, "I think if that's the worst people can say about me in the heat of a difficult dispute, I think it speaks very well about my character." In the same interview, Ryan said, "She says three times over eight years [of marriage], we went to places that she felt uncomfortable...That's the worst of it. I think almost any spouse would take that as, `Gosh, if that's the worst someone can say about me after seeing me live my life for eight years . . . ' then people say, `Gosh, the guy's lived a pretty clean life.'"

Ryan tried to rally through such public appearances and the release of a set of "talking points" for his supporters to use in his defense, but was soon facing criticism from his own party as well. Judy Baar Topinka, chair of the state's Republican Party, and former Governor Jim Edgar said Ryan hadn't been forthcoming when asked if the divorce records contained any potentially embarrassing material. Ryan denied this account, saying Topinka had actually asked him if there was anything in the file that precluded his becoming a U.S. Senator; he also said he had already disclosed the information in the files to party officials. Topinka and Edgar, in turn, disputed Ryan's version of events, with Edgar saying Ryan had only described the "avant-garde" club.

Ryan ended his campaign on June 24, saying the focus on the divorce would take focus away from the issues. He criticized the Tribune, saying the records had been unsealed over the objections of both parents and that he had wished to have them closed in the interest of his son. Obama chose to laud Ryan's community work upon his departure, saying, "What happened to him over the last three days was unfortunate...It's not something I certainly would wish on anybody. And having said that, from this point forward, I think we will be continuing to talk about the issues." Ryan officially dropped out of the race in July.

Ryan's resignation left the GOP scrambling for a replacement. In August, after unsuccessfully courting former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and Orion Samuelson, an agricultural broadcaster, they finally settled on conservative commentator Alan Keyes...at that time residing in Maryland. Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, compared the selection process to The Gong Show.

In an October interview, Ryan said he had resigned because he couldn't fight a "two-front war" against the Democrats and Republicans. He advised that divorce issues not be used against politicians in either party, saying he did not support the release of divorce records then Democratic candidate for President, John Kerry. He joked that the uproar was a "sexless sex scandal" and returned to Hales Franciscan as a substitute teacher, considering returning to teaching full-time when it became possible. In 2005, he launched 22nd Century Media, which publishes a chain of weekly newspapers focusing on local news in the Chicago suburbs.

Obama won the 2004 Senate general election in a landslide, taking 70 percent of the vote to Keyes' 27 percent.

Sources: ilsenate.com, "In Illinois, a Contest of Contrasts" in the Washington Post on March 17 2004, "Some Ryan Divorce Files Should be Unsealed" in the Chicago Tribune on March 30 2004, "Court Sets Release of Ryan's Divorce Records" in the Chicago Tribune on June 18 2004, "GOP Leaders Say They Felt Misled on Ryan File" in the Chicago Tribune on June 23 2004, "Illinois Senate Campaign Thrown into Prurient Turmoil" in the New York Times on June 23 2004, "Ryan Quits Race" in the Chicago Tribune on June 26 2004, "Candidate Officially Drops Out" in the New York Times on July 30 2004, "Illinois GOP Finally Picks a Candidate" in the New York Times on August 5 2004, "Jack Ryan '81: The Conservative Idealist" in the Dartmouth Independent on Oct. 1 2004, CNN results of 2004 election, chicagobusiness.com


Anonymous said...

OK it is 4 A setting married Democrat president 2 git a BJ in the oval office but a rep can not go 2 a night club?

Anonymous said...

Isn't the literacy of the right wonderful?

Anonymous said...

The literacy of the right is absolutely fine; in fact, in many cases, it far surpasses that of the left. I would urge you not to make broad generalizations about an entire group based solely on a single individual's commentary, opting instead to investigate the issues for their political relevance.

Anonymous said...

@ 1st anonymous, the 90's were a different time man

HavensFire said...

That it is. Also, isn't the reading comprehension level of the right just adorable?

Unknown said...

I wouldn't say that snide comments about the literacy of the far right are based on "one individual." A noteworthy example of the far right's lack of literary comprehension can be found in former president George W. Bush, in the willingness of many Republicans to marry their political party to fundamentalist Christianity, and at any given Tea Party rally. Meanwhile, it is the left-wing political body that most frequently champions education, emphasizes the importance of higher degrees (I do say "most frequently," not "universally") and bases its arguments on honest facts. The right-wing politicians are most happy with their constituents and influentially placed subscribers being dumb and obedient.

Anonymous said...

So, the President of the United States owes his first election win to Unsealing the bad divorce proceedings of both his opponents and embarrassing them into resigning from the race?

Anonymous said...

Too bad that in the end, Obama got the seat. Pitiful really.