When experts reconstruct disasters, they continually highlight how a series of minor events can compound into a gigantic collapse later on. A safety switch is left off a day before an unusual cold snap occurs; an inspector calls in sick, and then pow, a building implodes. That kind of thing.
And many of us know today’s story, but incredibly many of us do not: how a goofball decision by the Illinois GOP may have badly damaged America forever.
The year is 2004, and Illinois is generally a red state: although Kerry got the nod from the Illinois electoral college, Illinois folks had a Republican governor and a Republican US senator about to retire.
The Illinois GOP ran a pretty solid candidate to replace the outgoing senator: Jack Ryan was pro-business, for tax reductions, tort reform, and a bunch of things that made him pretty much unstoppable. He was also once married to then-red-hot actress Jeri Ryan, which gave him superb name recognition.
So much so that the Illinois Democratic party ran a long-shot candidate named Barack Obama. Obama was a no-show state senator, who had a mixed record when it came to elections. Obama was, however, attracting attention by making some shrewd personal moves but frosted some members of the Illinois Democrats. Run him against Ryan, they figured, and then when he gets blown out of the water, we’re done with him.
Suddenly, the Jack-and-Jeri Ryan sealed divorce papers became public. Although popular myth is that the evil David Axelrod somehow got hold of them, the sad truth is that the Illinois GOP screwed this up. That something bizarre had occurred prior to the divorce was well-known rumor and innuendo, and not exactly secret. The Illinois GOP, during its primaries, was all for releasing them. Eventually, a judge ruled they could be opened in the event there was anything in there essential for the public to know given Ryan could be a US Senator.
Let the record show that candidate Barack Obama, who may have privately learned of the contents, urged that they be concealed: what was in there was Ryan-family-only information and of no consequence to the election. Rumors persist that Obama secretly was peddling information to the press, but (a) no evidence of this ever turned up and more importantly (b) you can see why candidate Obama did not want anyone snooping around in his personal history, either.
Unfortunately, the press did get hold of the information—possibly from a Ryan Republican primary opponent—and the public heard some strange accusations from Jeri Ryan: namely, that Jack Ryan was involved in some very unusual sexual practices. Although there was no proof of this other than Ms. Ryan’s say-so, and although Ms. Ryan has never repeated nor affirmed her original statements, Jack Ryan never contested her claims after the public release of information, believing she should be left alone.
As word came out that something incredible and salacious was in those papers, Ryan plummeted in the polls: Obama was now ahead. Humiliated and embarrassed by the press, Jack Ryan dropped out of the race. Had the Illinois Republican party protected the confidential and legally protected record, Ryan should have won the US Senate seat handily.
Of course, the story does not merely end there. His original primary opponent, Jim Oberweis, was a well-funded, well-known, and highly successful businessman who could have returned to the race and run a solid campaign against the now-rising Barack Obama.
But the Illinois GOP decided he had already lost one election; they needed someone to come in during the 11th hour, someone who could really challenge Barack Obama in the one key area that Illinois Republicans could fathom: that he was black.
So they decided to find a black Republican with some notoriety. Never mind that Obama was completely beatable on his paper-thin record and that his popularity had nothing to do with him being black (there were dozens of black politicians in Illinois), and never mind that the Illinois GOP had made a couple of stupid decisions regarding Jack Ryan: they decided to make one more.
They picked novelty candidate Alan Keyes, who was famous for little more than trying to run for every office he could in some quixotic quest for power. Even by 2004, he was known as a whack-job, prone to making outrageous statements on his MSNBC chat show, and announcing himself as a candidate for whatever election was next.
He wasn’t even from Illinois, but no matter. He was the guy the Illinois GOP put against Barack Obama because Keyes was black, well-known (but not by Illinois Republicans), and basically said yes when they asked him; remember, Keyes never turned down a candidacy.
Needless to say, Keyes did what Keyes does and embarrassed himself throughout the short campaign. He ran at the mouth, made comments about homosexuality (bad) and reparations (maybe good), and basically stood against everything that had make Jack Ryan popular.
He was crushed in the election by Obama—not because voters came out to support Barack Obama, but because millions of solid Republican voters simply left the checkbox blank.
The Czar filled in his checkbox, but will admit he started for a few seconds wondering if he really, really, really wanted Alan Keyes representing his family in the United States Senate. Ultimately, he filled in that box because he was worried a blank box would cause another Illinois voting machine to hang up and erase his vote for George W. Bush for president.
Needless to say, Obama was a no-show US Senator who immediately announced his bid for presidency in 2008.
Imagine what might have happened had the Illinois Republicans said “The Ryan divorce papers are sealed; we have to respect that.”
Look at the headlines today to see where their actual decision has led.