Sanford’s Undoing

For many politicians, the only crime is getting caught

If the issue being highlighted by Sanford critics is the need for moral clarity from our leaders in Columbia, then all legislators who are involved in illicit affairs which have not yet been discovered should be prepared to resign if Sanford does. That way the moral purge would be complete, and the Statehouse would be free of adulterers, both known and unknown.

This is obviously never going to happen. The reason is because Sanford’s true undoing came not from having an affair or even going to Argentina unannounced, it was in getting caught. The sooner we recognize this truism in American politics, the sooner we will get past the righteous indignation every time a politician stumbles, and actually focus on the quality of job they performed prior to that discovery.

Disclaimers: Although I am a Sanford fan, I disagreed with his position on the release of the stimulus funds. I remain a big fan of Bill Clinton, and think he was an excellent president despite his moral failings. I was never a fan of John Edwards, and believe he was slick and disingenuous from the start. Those three things being said, I am unaware of any politician who has been unfaithful that has come clean without first being caught.

Bill Clinton might have won the credibility battle with Monica Lewinsky if not for the “DNA evidence” that infamously implicated him on her blue dress. Eliot Spitzer might well still be the governor of New York if not for the FBI sting that caught him. John Edwards might still have a political future if not for the National Enquirer reporter who caught him in Vegas. And most recently, Mark Sanford might still be one of the leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination if not for a reporter from The State who found the governor in the Atlanta airport.

Each one of these politicians would have had the same moral character had their indiscretions not come to light as they had afterwards. The only difference is that the public would not have known about their misdeeds. In reality, the public can’t possibly punish all politicians who have lapses, only the ones who get caught. It would make more sense to assume that all politicians are human, and likely to fail, and judge them on how they discharge their public duties.

Consider this: Sanford’s wife knew of her husband’s transgressions for at least five months prior to his Argentinian trip, yet she was fine with allowing him to continue his service as governor. It was only after the governor went down to Argentina, despite her warnings not to do so, that she told the press she was not concerned about his career. If she had no problem with his fitness to be governor, despite his infidelity, why should we? Essentially, the governor’s prior indiscretions were excusable as long as they were undiscovered by the public, but once the governor was caught, he was in trouble.

The bottom line is that we implicitly excuse public figures for their wrongdoing, as long as we do not know about it. As long as a politician is not shown to be hypocritical, we are content to let them serve in office without digging any deeper. The only alternative would be to set up a morality police department which would have the authority to dig into politicians’ personal lives. Of course, this would violate their right to privacy, and who would ever want to be a public servant in that world?

I do not condone the governor’s actions, particularly the lack of judgment that would motivate him to leave the country without a contact number. Apparently, however, he made some mistakes prior to that trip. The governor’s biggest fault was not the moral lapses that led to his affair; it was that his affair was discovered by the press and that he divulged additional details to the media that he was under no obligation to provide.

It is a shame we do not know the moral shortcomings of all the people who were calling for the governor’s ouster. If we did, that chorus of voices that voted for his censure and for his resignation would have been much quieter.