The "impossible love" of Mark Sanford

Why "keep it in your pants" is such a trite response when it comes to the complications of marriage

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 25, 2009 12:26PM (EDT)

Amidst the perverse satisfaction of watching yet another ostensibly strait-laced, upright politician brought down by infidelity, there's a familiar -- and far too trite -- refrain being sung by the pundits and blogosphere alike.

"Keep it in your pants."

There's no doubt that Mark Sanford, like Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign, John Edwards and a host of his political comrades before him, betrayed his vows to his wife and his duties to his people. What he did was stupid and selfish and hypocritical and weird and humiliating to his wife.

But somewhere in all of the schadenfreude, there's still a story of a man who fell into "impossible love" with another married person, a devout Christian who could awkwardly rhapsodize about his lover's "magnificently gentle kisses... the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light."

As Christina Nehring writes in "A Vindication of Love," "Romance in our day is a poor and shrunken thing." It's not that passion is dead -- it's just so rare that it's no small wonder it erupts in strange and devastating ways. As Sanford described in one of his missives, "How in the world this lightening strike snuck up on us I am still not quite sure."

Our politicians play the public role their constituents demand of them. Family man, Christian man, heterosexual man. To be otherwise -- or worse, to reveal to be otherwise mid-career -- is to lose it all. Yet again and again these men take the risk, in no small part fueled by their own deluded hubris but surely spurred by something else as well: their own flawed, vulnerable, human desires. It's not that keeping it in one's pants is impossible -- plenty of people manage to do so on a daily basis -- it's just that morality, and marriage, are rarely that simple.

That's why it's so particularly heartbreaking to read his wife Jenny's statement that "I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will," and that "it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong." Like many political spouses, she’s learning today that being "best wife I can be" is no guarantee of happiness, affection or even dignity.

Is love an act of will or a lightning strike? And what happens when a man and woman who have loved and raised children together find those definitions so deeply at odds?

In the past, Sanford has stated, "It is my personal view that the largest proclamation of one's faith ought to be in how one lives his life." Faith, as anyone who's ever attempted it knows, can be an agonizingly difficult thing. Sanford's faith shook, and he lived his life accordingly.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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