Last week when it was reported that Mark Sanford had taken a vacation to an undisclosed location, the fact that the media and some politicians treated the governor’s absence as if he was “missing” seemed patently absurd.

A governor doesn’t simply go missing. And if Sanford had gone somewhere to take a break, I was sure he had good reason and a logical explanation for the confusion. I thought that the seemingly opportunistic politicians who went on the attack, like state Sen. Jake Knotts and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, were simply using an obvious mix-up to bash Sanford for their own cheap political reasons.

So when Sanford announced a press conference to address the whole mishap, I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say. In a state plagued with big government Republicans, the one rare exception — a governor who had not only talked the conservative talk, but had always walked the conservative walk — would not let me down.

And then he did.

That a man whose entire career had been defined by his staunch fidelity to the American taxpayer would throw it all away by committing infidelity seemed like a fate fit for some other politician. In his political life, Sanford had never been a scumbag like Eliot Spitzer, a hack with something to hide like Larry Craig ,or even remotely in the same universe as the modern standard bearer for secret sexual affairs, Bill Clinton. Lying seemed a natural fit for all these men. It was not a surprise that these elected officials, whose only guiding principle at the political level seemed to be self-empowerment, would be just as selfish in their personal lives.

But Sanford was a surprise. Here was a Republican who could have easily taken the same career path of most Republicans, but instead spent much of his time fighting his own party, taking the GOP to task at both the state and national level for betraying its conservative principles. Sanford took the hard road, standing up for limited government when no one else would. He was decidedly an unconventional Republican for all the right reasons. And yet last week, by his own actions, Sanford ended up in the same sort of tawdry, sleazy, and politically predictable place typically reserved for less sincere, less principled and simply, lesser men.

As a contributing editor for the magazine Young American Revolution, a publication of the conservative student organization Young Americans for Liberty, I had recently written a lengthy article entitled “Draft Mark Sanford,” urging Ron Paul supporters to consider getting behind the South Carolina governor if he decided to run for president in 2012. Good conservatives are few and far between, and I believed Sanford stood poised to continue the fight for serious fiscal conservatism that had defined and energized the Paul presidential campaign.

But not now. For my entire career of writing and talking about politics, I’ve always had to point to conservative heroes elsewhere. Pat Buchanan, up in Washington, D.C. has always been a hero, and of course Texas Congressman Ron Paul. That a similar, reliable conservative figure in Sanford, a fellow South Carolinian, even existed seemed almost too good to be true. And it was.

Not that I don’t believe Sanford today isn’t the same, sincere conservative he was two weeks ago. But does it matter? Human beings make mistakes, and Sanford isn’t the first man to commit adultery. But there are certain mistakes that politicians can find insurmountable. Infidelity is one of them.

Everything I have ever written or said in defense of Sanford or his stellar limited government record has not changed, and his conservative message is no less important because of the fall from grace of its messenger.

We still have the same slimeball, big government Republicans running this state, who no doubt are loving watching Sanford suffer, and the GOP still has the same crooked politicians with aspirations at the national level. Sanford could have been their greatest obstacle, as a credible conservative who got in the way of yet another round of conventional Republicans seeking office simply to conduct business as usual.

When Sanford went disappeared last week, I wasn’t worried about it, knowing that he was one of the few politicians who would never let me down. Then Sanford was “found,” and I was let down.

I still want the stubborn, take-no-prisoners, fiscally conservative governor I had always championed. I miss that Mark Sanford.

But sadly now, the conservative hero that could have been probably never will be. And more sadly, due entirely to his own actions, it’s almost as if he never was.

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