The 24-hour cable news services had a field day when Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina went AWOL for four days. Even more when they got word from his office that his wife didn't know where he was and didn't care. The story got juicier when his office sent out a statement that he might be hiking in the Appalachians. Gossip had it that during the summer solstice it is the custom in the Appalachians to hike--get this, Puritan America--in the nude.
Talk about juicy! He was spotted in the Atlanta airport getting off a plane from Buenos Aires. No nude hiking at all, just the chance of hanky-panky in South America. The governor was on the spot. He had some 'splaining to do. Under the pressure of coming up with an explanation before the cameras, he caved and told his story.
The cable tv commentators, a bloodthirsty and sometimes heartless lot, went wild. Here was hypocrisy in high places, a Republican of all things, admitting to having an affair. As if Democrats in high places don't do such things. Red meat!
A friend who has long been a defender of the practice of extramarital sex emailed me this: "He is setting 'recreational sex' back 40 years." An interesting take on the practice, but hardly an unbiased view of the situation. For one thing, Sanford wasn't involved in recreational sex. Unlike my sophisticated friend, he is clearly a debutante in the field. He had become involved physically with a woman outside his marriage and, falling in love, became all befuddled as men in such situations can do. Cameras rolling, he apologized to everyone he hurt, and seemed to be compelled to include everyone he had ever met. In truth, his actions hurt himself, obviously, for the staid gentleman was clearly falling apart before our eyes; his family and maybe a few close friends. And what hurt them was not the affair but the very public, very clumsy confession.
Not for a minute could the affair he described, and the subsequent revelation of emails on cable TV and the Internet, be considered a casual dalliance (or recreational sex). While Keith Olbermann couldn't resist intoning excerpts of the purple prose with New-Age music swooping in the background, my inner sentimentalist--the woman in me--said, "Yeah, very funny, but I wish that had been written to me."
His wife is on record as having kicked him out two weeks ago. What choice did he have but to go to Argentina and cry with his mistress for a few days? Well, I get that, but anybody who has even been anywhere near a situation like this lays careful plans. The wife didn't want to know, but something very tidy must be done about the staff--and if you're the governor, the constituents. It wouldn't have been that hard. But we're talking about a man who's out of his head, however temporarily (one hopes), and not using that particular part of his cerebral cortex for thinking.
What of his political future? Unlike those talking heads who confront me almost every evening, I'm not gonna say I know. I think he'll soon retire from what we call public life and get a life of his own. A few politicians have survived their scandals--I can think of a very public one who seems to sail through life failing upward in this area over and over. But Sanford broke the cardinal rule in a country full of people who say one thing and do another. He told the truth. In Washington, that's known as a gaffe, even in a minor situation. But this was pretty major.