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Thursday, July 1, 2004 01:04 pm

To tell the truth

You might think Jack Ryan was forced out of the U.S. Senate race because the media found out that his ex-wife had alleged that he dragged her to kinky-sex clubs on two continents. Tabloid television programs, right-wing pundits, and Republican insiders from Washington, D.C., emphasized the sex, either to sell their stories or defend Ryan as a guy who was being slimed in the media and who never technically broke any of the Ten Commandments.

But it wasn't about the sex. It was about the lying.

Ryan's nomination as the Republican candidate was irreversibly tainted when his divorce records were finally unsealed last week. Before the March primary, when word leaked out that the files contained some bombshells, Ryan repeatedly told reporters, voters, and state Republican leaders that there was nothing embarrassing in the records.

His opponents were lying, Ryan said. He had nothing to hide, he and his spokespersons said over and over again. He only wanted to keep the public records private because there was information in them that could harm his son.

Ryan went on to win the primary, and, afterward, whenever anyone asked about the rumors, Ryan repeated that there was nothing to worry about. Everything was fine -- no trouble ahead. The story pretty much went away until just before the heavily redacted records were released last Monday.

Even then, Ryan couldn't tell the truth. Over the weekend, Ryan called Jim Edgar to give the former governor a heads-up about what was in the files. But he only told Edgar his side of the story: that on one occasion he and his then-wife had wandered into an "avant-garde" club in Paris and bolted as soon as they realized it was an inappropriate place for them to be. Edgar released a statement supporting Ryan and was furious when, just hours later, he discovered that he'd been told such an obvious lie.

As we all know by now, the other side of the Jack Ryan saga was a whole lot worse than Ryan's version. There's no need to rehash the seamy details here. He's gone. Let's move on.

But before we all forget this sordid little tale, let's try to learn something. After all, Ryan is the second Illinois Senate candidate this year to be destroyed after sealed divorce records were made public. Before the primary, Democrat Blair Hull vanished in a cloud of smoke when it was finally revealed that he had allegedly struck his ex-wife and threatened to kill her.

These lessons seem pretty obvious to me, but we evidently have to go over them because two candidates and a gaggle of high-paid political consultants demonstrated this year that they don't grasp basic realities of life.

Lesson No. 1: Reporters and the public are always more intrigued by sealed, concealed, or hidden information than stuff that is right out in the open. Republican candidate Jim Oberweis went through a bitter divorce right before the primary, but you didn't read about it because Oberweis never tried to hide anything. The Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, wrote a book several years ago that talked about some of his youthful indiscretions, including occasional drug use. It hasn't been a political problem because Obama came clean in a direct and forthright manner. Disclose early, disclose completely.

Lesson No. 2: Don't flat-out lie about potentially embarrassing things that can be proved. Up until the very end, Ryan could never bring himself to tell the truth. When the records did come out, Ryan compounded the lie by claiming he had never told political leaders that there was nothing embarrassing in his files. When those same political leaders contradicted him, he was outed as a serial prevaricator.

Once you are proved a deliberate liar, nobody will ever believe you again about anything. Just look at the media coverage of Bill Clinton's new autobiography if you want proof. It's all about Monica.

Ryan and some of his more rabid supporters self-righteously blamed the media, the liberals, the Democrats, and anyone else they could think of to save his lying skin.

But what the heck did they expect? Jack Ryan was a fatally flawed candidate -- not because he dragged his wife to sex clubs (I, for one, don't see this as a huge problem) but because he wouldn't, or couldn't, tell the truth.

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