Illinois Republicans Eat Their Young (With the Media’s Help)

Posted July 2, 2004 at 12:10pm

Almost three years ago — on July 16, 2001, to be exact — this column introduced readers to a then-41-year-old political neophyte who, I believed then, had the potential to become a star. His name was Jack Ryan, and he was considering a 2002 Illinois Senate run against Sen. Dick Durbin (D).

I described Ryan as “smart, wealthy, handsome, articulate, interested in politics and government, committed to making a difference and a conservative with a social conscience.”

[IMGCAP(1)] He ultimately opted against running that year, but he clearly had caught the political bug, and he jumped into the 2004 Senate race when the incumbent, Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, announced that he would not seek another term.

I had another meeting with Ryan in September of last year, and it did nothing to change my impression of him as a person or as a candidate.

That’s why I was so disappointed to witness the media frenzy and comments of some spineless Illinois Republicans when documents related to a child custody fight alleged that Ryan’s wife, actress Jeri Ryan, accused her husband of “forcing her” to go to what has generally been described as “sex clubs.”

While Ryan certainly deserves some blame for his handling (or mishandling) of the entire situation (and I’ll get to that in a moment), there are others who deserve greater criticism.

The media’s treatment of the whole incident has only confirmed the widespread belief that most media outlets prefer stories about sex and violence to serious news. Media Web sites, newspapers and TV networks referred to Ryan’s “sex scandal” as if he had committed some public act of promiscuity or had engaged in some behavior that raised doubt about his qualifications to serve in government.

Maybe you think that if he did what his now ex-wife said he did then he disqualified himself for high office. Maybe you believe it was no big deal. I don’t care. But the media coverage was a farce.

The oddest thing about the media fury was that no sex was involved and that the accusations took place in a custody fight (not in divorce records, as erroneously reported by many in the media), in which each side in the struggle is encouraged to say negative things about the other.

Still, the media apparently have decided that what a husband and wife do — or even think about doing — inside their marriage is fodder to sell papers or attract viewers, and both the state and national media jumped on the story as if it was a big deal. That, of course, made it a big deal.

Anyway, the day that Ryan dropped out of the race a reporter for a highly regarded cable network suggested (on air) that state party Chairwoman Judy Barr Topinka and former Gov. Jim Edgar were among the names mentioned as possible candidates to fill the vacant nomination. The reporter also said that the scandal could change the arithmetic in the fight for control of the Senate.

Of course, nobody who knew anything expected Topinka or Edgar to run, since both Republicans had a chance to run months ago, when Fitzgerald announced he would retire. And Democrats always had the edge in the open Illinois Senate race anyway, so Ryan’s exit hardly changed anything.

Apparently it’s more important to get the details of the “sex scandal” right than to report accurately on the politics and political fallout.

But it’s too easy to bash the media, which increasingly deserves to be ignored.

So let’s move on to the Illinois Republican Party, which has become both generally ineffective in general elections and apparently more interested in preserving its own power than in electing candidates.

Jack Ryan apparently didn’t do a terrific job reaching out to the state GOP establishment after his primary win, and he apparently was not as clear as he should have been with Topinka and Edgar about the accusations in the custody records. For both of those errors, he deserved to be criticized.

But the crowded primary contest guaranteed that there would be plenty of disappointed Republicans in the state, and political insiders I respect confirm that Topinka, who is also state treasurer, never warmed to the idea of Ryan as the party’s Senate nominee. After all, he came from nowhere to dump a few million dollars into the race, beating other hopefuls who had lengthier party credentials.

State-party types never embraced Fitzgerald, either, and the thought of another independent-minded Republican Senator undoubtedly gave them indigestion. Not that Ryan was even favored to win the seat; he wasn’t. But state GOP insiders simply wanted one of their own filling the Senate seat rather than Fitzgerald II.

Democrats in Pennsylvania and Ohio are trying to rebuild their state parties after years of atrophy. If Ryan’s political lynching is any indication, Republican insiders in the Land of Lincoln seem more interested in battling over the crumbs left from their years of success rather than in rebuilding their crumbling party.

As for the media, reporters, editors and executives apparently have decided that nothing — nothing — is private. We will see whether they go after Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s (D) divorce records with equal zeal.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.