January 22, 2009

Some people look at actress Jeri Ryan and see the former cover girl for Maxim and FHM. Some recall her days in a latex catsuit as Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager. Show biz junkies call her a show killer because she’s appeared in so many doomed series, from Dark Skies to Shark. But for me she will always be the woman who made Barack Obama’s career possible.  

She ought to have been appointed as Illinois’s senator; no one deserved it more. 

Jeri is not an attorney, although she’s often played one on TV.  None of her roles matched the part she played in the “€œsex scandal”€ that ruined her ex-husband’s career.  That’s “€œsex scandal“€ in quotes because, as the Washington Post noted in the aftermath, this was a sex scandal without sex. 

Here’s what happened:  The Ryans met in 1990 and married the following year. The former Jeri Lynn Zimmerman had been Miss Illinois 1989, and third runner up in the Miss American pageant. (She sang “€œOn My Own”€ from Le Miz.)  She had just graduated from Northwestern. Jack Ryan was a Dartmouth man, with Harvard law and business degrees, who left Goldman Sachs with a $95 million fortune, and chose to teach in a boys school on Chicago’s rough South Side. The Ryans settled in Chicago, while Jeri pursued her acting career, making her debut in a TV movie, Nightmare in Columbia County, as the teenage target of a serial killer. The Ryans”€™ son was born in 1994, but as Jeri’s career heated up, especially after she was cast in Star Trek: Voyager, she spent more and more time on the West Coast.  Her name was linked to Brannon Braga, executive producer of Star Trek Voyager.  (He’s currently a writer-producer on 24.) 

In 1999 Jeri filed for divorce. It was civilized and quiet, Jeri got a third of the Ryan fortune and the couple agreed to share custody of their son with Jeri holding physical custody. All records were sealed. A year later, Jack Ryan tried to revisit the custody agreement. Jeri responded with a 24-page Declaration filed with the Los Angeles Court.  In it she described the last days of a doomed marriage.  For her the marriage was over in the spring of 1998, but Jack Ryan went ahead and arranged surprise trips to New Orleans, New York, and Paris. He remembered them as “€œromantic weekends.”€ She remembered them as visits to sex clubs. He hated to go out to dinner, Jeri said, but he took her out in New York, then said the least she could do in return was go to one such club with him.  She went to the clubs, but as far as any activity went, she resorted to the most empowering phrase any woman can use”€””€œNo.”€ 

Besides, she was by now in love with another man, had been since spring, and the Ryans finally separated in fall 1998, divorcing the following year. Divorce and custody papers were sealed. 

Jeri’s recollections lay buried in the 2000 Declaration like an Internet worm until Jack Ryan won the 2004 Illinois Republican primary, defeating seven other candidates to become the Republican candidate for United States Senator from Illinois. Ryan’s Democratic opponent would be Barack Obama, a virtual nonentity who had served three undistinguished terms in the Illinois state senate and had already lost one Democratic primary fight for a chance to run for Congress.  

Almost immediately, Obama supporters began an e-mail campaign calling for Jack Ryan’s sealed records. He released his tax records and his divorce records, but in the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein, the Chicago Tribune investigative team refused to let go. The Tribune made history when it went to court to have the custody files opened, over the objections of both Jack and Jeri Ryan who were concerned about the effect on their nine-year-old son. The public’s right to know overruled that and Judge Robert T. Schnider of the Los Angeles Superior Court released 360 pages of sworn testimony. Diligent investigative reportage unearthed Jeri Ryan’s 2000 Declaration containing her description of their visits to sex clubs. Forget that this was a married couple and that nothing actually happened in the clubs.  This kind of thing still doesn”€™t play in the Midwest.

The Republican leadership quickly bailed on Jack Ryan. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Illinois State GOP chair Judy Baar Topinka asked Senator George Allen, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee to pull the plug on Ryan’s campaign.  

Ryan withdrew (“€œI was basically fired,”€ he said later) and his erstwhile opponent, Barack Obama issued a characteristically gracious statement: “€œWhat 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.”€ 

With less than three months until the election, everyone from former Governor Big Jim Thompson to coach Mike Ditka was mentioned as a possible replacement for Ryan, but the Illinois GOP chose to draft Alan Keyes, who had never lived in Illinois and who was immediately labeled a carpetbagger. Keyes ran a valiant campaign, without a dime from Illinois Republicans, but was overwhelmed by the Obamaniacs who swept their candidate to victory with 70% of the vote. 

It’s a sad story: a beautiful woman gets restless in her marriage. The husband can”€™t see the writing on the wall.  She tells him there’s someone else. The one who benefited most was the obscure congressman who would spend most of his senate term campaigning for the presidency. 

All this makes me think of other sealed records.I think back to John Kerry’s divorce records in Massachusetts; Barack Obama’s Columbia University records; Hillary Clinton’s thesis at Wellesley. Wouldn”€™t you love to read them all? But you never will. 

Sail on, Jeri Ryan. You should been a senator. Barack Obama owed you big time. You’d think that folks from Chicago would better about repaying their debts.  


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