When Mark Sanford was asked last week by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer how John McCain’s economic policies would differ from those of George W. Bush, the governor might as well have stayed home. Sanford drew a blank, stammered and stumbled, and searched desperately for any possible policy examples that might differentiate the Republican presidential candidate from the current Republican president. Our poor governor never gave a satisfactory answer, something Blitzer pointed out as the television segment ended and newspaper editors nationwide began conjuring up headlines to chronicle what most observers agreed was a monumental gaffe.

As a longtime admirer of Sanford, it was clear to me what happened. While the typical politician is prepared to lie on cue, as a man who has built his political career on sticking to principle and keeping his promises, deception doesn’t come naturally to the governor. Sanford didn’t offer any economic policy differences between McCain and Bush because there aren’t any. And instead of damning him for being unsuccessful in his attempt to play the good Republican, Sanford’s spectacular disaster instead reminded me that our governor is something much more admirable than a skilled party hack — he’s a good person.

In politics, this makes Sanford a rare animal. If it is true that a man can be judged by his friends, then he might also be judged by his enemies. And the harshest criticisms against Sanford come not from South Carolina voters who have elected the former Congressman and current governor on five separate occasions, but from politicians in the Statehouse, who find Sanford’s unwavering dedication to fiscal conservatism a constant roadblock to conducting business as usual. It only makes sense that the standard, run-of-the-mill crooked politician, accustomed to running the political mill according to long-established, crooked standards, would spew venom at any man who might throw a monkey wrench in the machine. And out of a genuine commitment to good government, Sanford considers it his duty to keep throwing wrenches.

Another hell-raiser with heart was late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, whose enemies might have outnumbered his admirers even in death. Derided as racist, unprogressive, and reactionary, Helms wore such criticisms as a badge of honor. Wrote conservative activist Paul Weyrich in memory of Helms: “The reason the vicious media never succeeded in defeating Helms was because the picture they tried to create of the senator was untrue. People realized that the real man was distinct from the media’s caricature.” I didn’t always agree with Helms, but I never doubted his genuineness.

The same could be said of West Ashley’s John Graham Altman, who both as a state and school board leader has never suffered fools gladly. A genuine man of the people who is infamous for expressing many of the same politically incorrect opinions of those in his district, Altman is the party hack’s worst nightmare — a man who speaks his mind and doesn’t give a damn whether anyone else likes it or not.

The same spirit of intellectual liberty and commitment to his people is what animated former Charleston City Councilman Kwadjo Campbell. But while Campbell’s enemies made fun of his run-ins with the law, the councilman always sought justice for the black communities on Charleston’s east side. When developers and city government had a stake in increased gentrification, Campbell had a stake in his neighborhood, and the imperfect patriot consistently opposed the careless profiteers.

The frequent scorn lodged against men like Sanford, Helms, Altman, and Campbell, is in part due to their refusal to play by the establishment’s rules. The political and personal sins of men like Ted Kennedy and Rudy Giuliani are arguably far greater than those of the aforementioned North and South Carolina leaders, and yet both are treated almost universally glowingly by the mainstream press.

When Sanford made a flub, Helms ruffled feathers, Altman offended a reporter, and Campbell tweaked the city brass, it wasn’t indicative of their incompetence, but a moment of honesty in a political world built on deception. One need not agree with everything such leaders espouse to recognize that unlike most of their contemporaries, at least they genuinely believe in what they’re saying.

We should be so lucky to have more leaders who are so dedicated to honesty and integrity that they would prefer to look like fools in public — than to spend their careers taking their public for fools.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.