The Thorn Birds of South Carolina

The compulsively readable e-mails of Mark Sanford -- Christian martyr, reckless romantic

Published June 25, 2009 4:26PM (EDT)

This morning the South Carolina newspaper that spilled the e-mails on Gov. Mark Sanford published the unedited exchanges between him and his "dear dear friend," known only as "Maria," a day after excerpts already made him the target of late-night talk show hosts and bloggers. Keith Olbermann compared his prose style to "The Bridges of Madison County" while his guest, comedian Christian Finnegan, said Sanford's love letters were so perfectly attuned to the romantic fantasies of middle-aged women that Sanford was likely to see his fans wearing T-shirts that read: "I am a 45-year-old depressed housewife and I vote!" Mock his swooning devotion to his lover's tan lines and his conviction that he may the only man in the world to appreciate country music at sunrise if you will, but this guy is no Bill O'Reilly with his falafel-loofah, nor Eliot Spitzer with days upon days of revelations, each more sordid than the next. As Andrew O'Hehir wrote in an e-mail exchange among Salon staffers yesterday, "If you apply the standards of disgraced public-figure sexual communications, this guy is James fucking Joyce."

The new e-mails show, even more than ever, that Sanford was a guy struggling to reconcile his duties as a husband and father with being "impossibly," "hopelessly" in love with another woman. As Mary Beth Williams pointed out earlier, it echoes a conversation we at Broadsheet have been having over the past few weeks: Is marriage, as his wife, Jenny, puts it in her poignant statement "an act of will"? And what does one do when "lightning strikes"? (Just to be clear: Yes, if "lightning strikes" while you are the executive of an entire state, at the very least you should leave behind your contact number, put someone in charge and let your constituents in on your true whereabouts.)

Sure, the unedited versions are filled with breathless infatuation and a level of mind-numbing detail that only underscores how these letters were never meant for us to read in the first place.  But they also have a riveting kind of drama, not just a rare peek into the inner life of a politician, but one that comes in the form of a page-turner of a romance: part morality play, part bodice-ripper. Both parties seem to understand that their love is not to be, and keeping within the ritual of courtly love, this makes it all the more intense. Like the good Christian man he is, Sanford's got an appropriate Bible verse on hand to express his emotions (Corinthians 13) and, also Christ-like, urges his lover to forsake him for a younger man who can better show her the love she deserves. ( "I do give him credit for putting John McCain, Corinthians 13, and tan lines in the same erotic missive," writes Mary Beth Williams. "Eat his dust, Henry Miller!")

And yet, he wonders, is he caught up in the wrong story? "I better stop now least this really sound like The Thornbirds -- wherein I was always upset with Richard Chamberlain for not dropping his ambitions and running into Maggie's arms." (It's "Meggie," but whatever.)

Which will he choose: the "work" of putting back together his marriage to the woman who mothered his children and nurtured his career? Or will he pull a King Edward VIII, and forsake his throne for his mistress? With both ways lie great pain. And a man who has flung a few stones at others in similar circumstances deserves a few aimed at his particularly shaky-looking glass house. But wouldn't it be awesome if someone takes the lead in finally saying that, so long as he leaves a contact number and cares for his sons, the rest of us don't really care what he or any other politician does in their marriage or lack thereof?

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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