South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s press conference yesterday was remarkably devoid of self-denial, avoidance, spin, and all the other little deceptions in which politicians caught with their pants down like to indulge once the pants are pulled back up and the TV lights turned on.
There stood a man honestly presenting his own moral failures to a national television audience that he knew would include his closest friends and family, and struggling emotionally to deal with the shame and humiliation of it all. It was the humiliation that shone. Mark Sanford, the potential presidential candidate, fought back tears like a little boy caught sneaking candy and who can’t help sobbing not because he was caught, but because he knows he let his parents down.
I don’t doubt that Sanford really did cry in Argentina. The tears he shed were not John Edwards’ crocodile tears. They were not for the camera. They were the tears of a man caught midway between his duty to his wife and children and his longing for a new love, unable to decide which direction to turn.
Which brings us to the real issue. So Mark Sanford was genuinely contrite. So what? Contrition is neither an excuse nor an escape. He is guilty of the sin of adultery. That much is as plain as day. But he is guilty of far more than that. He is guilty of such a colossally poor judgment that even were Republicans the sort to forgive marital infidelity he still must be ruled out as a candidate for higher office.
Mark Sanford had everything going for him. He was a conservative’s conservative. On Republican core principles, he was as solid as any candidate since Reagan. And yet he was not the sort of conservative who easily alienates independents and moderates. He didn’t simply spout talking points. He understood the philosophy. He lived it. You could believe this guy meant what he said because he meant what he said.
When Sanford was in the U.S. House, he slept on a cot in his office to save money. He pledged to term-limit himself, and he kept that promise. He carried live pigs into the South Carolina State House to protest pork-barrel spending, and of course he famously refused federal stimulus money he thought South Carolina didn’t need.
He had the makings of a great populist conservative presidential candidate. He was seriously discussed as a possible vice presidential candidate last year, and since McCain’s defeat last fall, activists in New Hampshire would quickly bring up his name whenever the discussion turned to the best GOP choices for 2012.
With such tremendous prospects, all Sanford had to do to skate into the top tier of 2012 presidential hopefuls was avoid scandal. And what did he go and do? He courted it instead.
It wasn’t just that Mark Sanford had an affair. It wasn’t just that he started that affair during the presidential campaign of 2008, when he was flying around the country campaigning for a presidential candidate. It was that he went overnight from being thought of as a man with sound judgment, a man of reason, to a man who wasn’t even smart enough to realize that governors don’t fly incognito to Argentina and not get caught.
Beautiful women can impair men’s reasoning faculties. If that was the case here, Sanford’s mistress must be the most beautiful woman on earth because she turned his brain into grits.
Sanford didn’t just leave on the flimsiest of excuses, like a schoolboy slipping out to “the movies” with a blanket in the back of the car. He left on no excuse. Really, there are no cell phone towers in the Blue Ridge Mountains?
In addition to the poorly planned and excused excursion, there was the whole matter of his duty to the people of South Carolina. He fled without a thought of it. South Carolina law requires that the governor officially put his second-in-command in charge when the governor is going to be unable to perform his duties. Sanford just left. And turned off his cell phone. If anything had happened back home, the South Carolina government would have been paralyzed.
Republicans might count themselves lucky that Mark Sanford self-destructed in 2009. What a horror it would be were he to exercise this caliber of judgment after winning the presidential nomination.
Princes have given up kingdoms for love. Mark Sanford has given up a shot at the presidency for, well, something. Perhaps it was love. Perhaps it was a little less than that. Whatever it was — whoever it was — I hope she was worth the price Sanford has only begun to pay.
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