Handsome John Ensign has kept a low profile since resigning in disgrace from the United States Senate in 2011 in the wake of a sex scandal and attempted cover-up.
That’s changing now with the release of “The Family,” a five-part documentary on Netflix that explores the secretive Christian group that has influenced Washington’s power elite since the Eisenhower era through prayer and political connections. Ensign was an active member of the group in his halcyon days as a sunny conservative warrior who bunked at The Family’s C Street Center townhouse in the nation’s capital. If less than fully persuasive, the documentary makes a case against the disturbing and constitutionally questionable coziness of Christian nationalism and its rising popularity in the Trump era.
Ensign was once a well-groomed rising star in the Republican Party and briefly a presidential prospect. The born-again Christian conservative fit the airbrushed, true-believer image the party’s influential evangelical wing finds so attractive.
Getting caught in an extramarital affair with a staffer — who happened to be his wife’s close friend and the spouse of his chief of staff — put an end to his higher-office fantasizing in 2009. Ensign was in the proverbial doghouse, and his brothers in The Family tried to come to his aid.
What came next could have landed Ensign in the Big House.
With his ongoing affair with Cynthia Hampton understandably straining his working relationship with her husband, Doug Hampton, something had to give. In trying to buy his way out of trouble, Ensign used his influence to attempt to land Doug Hampton lobbying work and at one point used $96,000 of his parents’ money as unofficial “severance” for his chief of staff. It was later relabeled a “gift.”
Whether the cash was meant as a parting gift, a road stake or hush money, it set investigative wheels in motion. While Ensign wasn’t charged criminally, the efforts of the FBI, Federal Election Commission and Senate Ethics Committee compiled enough salacious facts that his career was crushed. The sleaze slimed his family and made him a much harder sell among his clean-living Christian congressional allies. At the time he resigned from office in May 2011, he faced expulsion from the Senate.
A veterinarian by training and former casino executive by family connection, Ensign went back to the dogs in 2013 after opening the Boca Park Animal Hospital. After so much scandal, spaying and neutering dogs again must have been a relief despite the occasional hand bite. Unlike the hounds of Washington, at least he could know whether the local pooches’ rabies shots were up to date.
Just last month Ensign returned to the headlines with the news that he’d divorced his wife Darlene after a 31-year marriage. It was a brief reminder of the fair-haired Republican Party prospect’s fall from the limelight.
Let’s just say he’s back in the harsh light.
Directed by Jesse Moss and based on the journalism and books of Jeff Sharlet, “The Family” is loaded with moments from Ensign’s free fall into ignominy and peppered with comments from Doug Hampton, still embittered over the treatment he received from his former Promise Keeper pal and employer — not to mention the federal justice system. While Ensign skated into private life sullied but uncharged, Hampton was hit with a seven-count indictment accusing him of violating a one-year lobbying ban. He later pled guilty to a single count of illegal lobbying and received probation.
Hampton lands plenty of punches as the ex-husband scorned, but political insiders and religious historians will likely disagree on whether the documentary is as factually weighty as it is dramatic. The Family’s secret society sensibility and the intriguing and enigmatic leadership of Doug Coe certainly add to its mystery. Viewers may wonder whether Donald Trump is the consummate member of The Family, or just the best the evangelicals could do on short notice.
Although he acknowledged “there are consequences to sin,” true to his sense of spiritual entitlement back in 2011 Ensign couldn’t quite bend a knee and apologize with a convincing depth of feeling. When he finally announced he would leave office ahead of the harassing hounds, he assured skeptics that, really, he was putting his family first.
“While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly, I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings,” he mewled. “For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great.”
After the Justice Department released 3,000 documents in 2014 that revealed the sordid details of Ensign’s activities, Doug Hampton would tell The New York Times, “This has crushed me. John Ensign orchestrated everything – the affair, my dismissal from his Senate staff, the lobbying work, everything – but at the end of the day, I’m the one who lost everything.”
Whether Hampton gets real satisfaction from the documentary isn’t certain, but it’s a sure bet this isn’t the way pious John Ensign imagined he’d be remembered.
But, hey, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith
Correction at 11:15 am on 8/22/19: