It is easy to assess the latest sex scandal in political terms. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's teary confession of an affair yesterday is merely the latest jolt to the GOP's battered image as the self-appointed party of moral rectitude and "family values." That's not just me talking; that's what scads of conservative Republicans are saying today. For instance, here's ex-Reagan strategist Craig Shirley:
"As of today, the GOP cannot get its message heard because too many Americans have turned their backs - or a deaf ear - or are simply laughing too hard at the irony of the party once built upon less government, clean living and family values turned into the sad caricature it has become. It very well might be that, like Lazarus, the GOP must die before it can be reborn. It happened before, in the mid 70’s and may well be happening again. But as Father’s Day has just passed, it is worth noting that the most significant representation of family values - once considered the province of the GOP - in America today is President Barack Obama."
And yet, all the political dimensions notwithstanding (did he finance his travels with the taxpayers' money?), I find that I have a soft spot for Sanford.
Yes, he embarrassed the party that he might have sought to lead in 2012, a party that at this point can ill afford further embarrassment. Yet amidst all the bathos at yesterday's press conference, and in the emails he has exchanged with his lover (more on those emails in a moment), I can see the sincerely love-sick human being who lost his compass for reasons of the heart that have plagued human beings since time immemorial.
This is complicated territory. What I'm suggesting is that while virtually all politicians' affairs are ruinous once they are outed, not all outed politicians' affairs are equally tawdry. Sanford clearly sees his lover as something of a soulmate, and he sees their relationship as something real - which in my book is a tad higher on the quality scale than, say, Bill Clinton enjoying the ministrations of Monica Lewinsky while conferring via phone with a congressman about Bosnia.
Which brings me to the emails. Perhaps you've read them already. It's a sign of the times that nothing is private anymore, as evidenced by the fact that South Carolina's top newspaper managed to obtain Sanford's emails with his mistress. The love notes surfaced in print this morning. One key sampling, from Sanford to the woman identified only by her first name, Maria:
"Do you really comprehend how beautiful your smile is? Have you been told lately how warm your eyes are and how they softly glow with the special nature of your soul...Above all else I love that inner beauty about you...You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that is so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light — but hey, that would be going into the sexual details we spoke of at the steakhouse at dinner — and unlike you I would never do that!...(W)hile all the things above are all too true — at the same time we are in a hopelessly — or as you put it impossible — or how about combine and simply say hopelessly impossible situation of love. How in the world this lightening strike snuck up on us I am still not quite sure..."
OK, so some of that is pretty cringe-worthy...just as anyone's most personal communications would be, when exposed to the world. The point here is that, while many people today are no doubt tempted to treat Mark Sanford solely as an object of derision, we might also want to spoon out at least a dose of empathy.
Rarely does a politician cut himself down to human scale as Sanford did in his press conference yesterday. He came off as a guy trying to sort out his deepest emotions - an inarticulate process that most of us have probably weathered at some point in our lives. In the end, we can condemn his political tin ear and still grant him his flawed humanity.