Not since Richard Nixon twisted slowly in the wind before resigning the presidency in 1974 have so many people speculated so feverishly over a politician’s state of mind.
Gov. Mark Sanford’s rambling, 18-minute mea culpa press conference on June 24, in which he teared up and revealed that he had been having an affair with an Argentine woman, stunned South Carolinians for many reasons, not least of which was the governor’s apparent inability to grasp the consequences of his behavior.
A few days after that fateful news conference, Sanford invited Associated Press reporters into his office for further revelation and soul-searching. There he described his mistress as his “soul mate.”
“This was a whole lot more than a simple affair; this was a love story,” Sanford told the scribes. Yet, at the same time he said he wanted to save his marriage to Jenny Sanford.
The AP interview touched off another round of speculation about the governor’s state of mind. Some think Sanford is having a midlife crisis; others say it is a nervous breakdown. Perhaps. But I have my own theory.
I have been observing this pampered, simple-minded rich kid since he first entered politics in 1994, and I can report that in his witless way he has truly led an extraordinary life. Most of our lives are a daily struggle, trying to achieve goals as mundane as paying the rent. We have successes and failures. We lose jobs, lose friends and lovers, get our hearts broken, only to put them back together and move on. That’s how life is in the real world. It builds character, teaches perspective, toughens us.
Mark Sanford has had little experience in such a world. The scion of upper middle-class privilege, he was blessed with good looks, an easy manner, the ability to charm and cajole his way through life, and a talent for being in the right place at the right time. That’s how he met his wife, Jenny Sullivan, at a party of Wall Streeters in the Hamptons. She was a wealthy heiress, who set Sanford up in a lifestyle he could never have attained on his own.
He got into politics and never lost an election, serving three terms in Congress and two as governor. Through it all, he lived life by the numbers. His charm and luck never failed him. Then he got involved with Maria Belen Chapur and his well-planned little world got turned upside down. He fell head-over-heels in love, and for the first time in his 49 years he encountered a problem that could not be solved with money, charm, or cajoling.
He was a married man in love with another woman. It’s the oldest story in the world, but for Mark Sanford it was a first. He simply came unmoored, unraveled, unhinged. That was the Mark Sanford who deserted the state for six days last month without notifying anyone in state government. That was the Mark Sanford we saw rambling and making a fool of himself in front of the cameras on June 24.
I suspect that Sanford’s press conference and subsequent interview with AP reporters were ill-considered attempts to pull out the old Mark Sanford charm, to slap a few backs, tell a few down-home stories, and put the whole thing to rest. It had worked countless times before in personal and political crises.
But Sanford failed to see that this was different. He had screwed up on a magnitude beyond any previous personal or political failing. And his thoughts were muddled by passion and sentimentality. A person so besotted with love will always act foolish, no matter how open or how clandestine the relationship. That’s part of what makes love so wonderful to experience and to behold. And that’s what makes love such a dangerous and destabilizing influence in human affairs. That’s what South Carolinians saw in their leader two weeks ago, and no amount of the old Sanford charm could make him look like he was in control of himself or events.
We can hope Sanford finds some peace in his troubled life and relationships. We can hope he learns and grows from this experience and lives long enough to profit from it in some way. We can wish him the best as a man with a broken heart and a muddled head. But we should make it clear that he must leave office. He has violated too many trusts. He has abandoned too many responsibilities. There are consequences for such behavior, as most people know by the time they are old enough to vote. It’s a shame Mark Sanford has lived this long without discovering this simple fact of life.