Mark Sanford's slow-motion crackup

Thanks for sharing, Governor. Now please take a cue from Norm Coleman, and go away

By Joan Walsh
Published July 1, 2009 10:31AM (EDT)

OK, it's official: Any sympathy I had for South Carolina's philandering Gov. Mark Sanford -- and I surprised myself by having some after his teary stream-of-consciousness confession to adultery last week -- is gone. In Sanford's latest self-indulgent soliloquy, this time to the Associated Press, he called his Argentine lover his "soul mate," confessed to more trysts with her than he admitted last week, and also blabbed about "crossing the line" with other women romantically -- but stopping short of sex.

Thanks for sharing, Mark Sanford. Now go away.

Just like former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman finally did, Sanford must eventually realize it's time to go. Not only did he deceive his staff, his state and his family about his Buenos Aires sojourn last week, now he's admitting he lied when he publicly and dramatically confessed to those earlier lies. Republicans used to insist their jihad against President Clinton over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was about his lies, not about the sex, but that was never true: It was always about politics. With Sanford, it's the reverse. The growing number of reasons for the governor to resign are in fact about his lies – and more than that, they're about Sanford's capacity to do his job – but the state GOP's failure to pressure him to leave is all about politics.

Leaving his staff and other state officials in the dark about his whereabouts last week, unable to reach him even in an emergency, was a clear breach of Sanford's duties, and that alone would seem to have been reason for impeachment, or at least for party leaders to ask him to resign. His apparent slow-motion crackup this week, unburdening himself to reporters about his midlife crisis/love affair, providing details nobody needed to know -- dancing with other women on boys' nights out and other weekend-bachelor getaways -- raises major questions about his judgment and stability.

Yet so far Republicans have been slow to pressure Sanford to resign -- and that's politics.  The only reason some of the state's GOP leaders aren't riding Sanford out on a rail is they don't want fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer to succeed him. Bauer was expected to vie with other party members for Sanford's job in a GOP primary next year (Sanford will be term-limited out of office) and he'd get a leg up if he got to run as the incumbent. Attorney General Henry McMaster, one of Bauer's expected GOP primary opponents, wouldn't even agree to investigate whether Sanford used public funds to travel to see his mistress (according to the New York Times, his staff was caught Twittering that Bauer had to be prevented from becoming governor: "Cannot allow a disaster to be replaced with catastrophe," said Trey Walker, a McMaster aide.) On Tuesday came word that McMaster is now looking into the possible abuse of public funds.

If I've lost all sympathy for Sanford, I have a little bit more for his publicly humiliated wife, Jenny -- but not much. In a dramatic but feeling-free public statement last week, she agreed to try to work things out with her husband but sounded creepy Christian right themes, reminding him from Psalms 127 that "sons are a gift from the Lord" (if they had daughters, his cheating would be less abominable?) and sounding more like she was reconciling with a business partner than a lover. And perhaps she was: Sanford is a talented political operative in her own right, running her husband's campaigns. Maybe she needs to take a page from Hillary Clinton and stop subordinating her own ambition to his.

At the very least, I wish she'd stop the public scoldings. "He was told in no uncertain terms not to see her," Sanford told the AP, about her insistence her husband not visit his mistress. "We'll just see what kind of spirit of reconciliation he has." I'm not betting Sanford will be able to save either his job or his marriage -- but I really only care about his job.

To me Sanford deserves the most scorn and shame not for his affair, but for his cynical effort to reject federal stimulus funds due to his low-income, high-unemployment state. Even Republicans criticized him for grandstanding, trying to get a jump on a rumored presidential run in 2012. Just as South Carolina teenager Ty'Sheoma Bethea became the public face of the state's "Corridor of Shame," the decrepit low-income majority-black schools that generations of governors have let decline, Sanford became the face of conservative white privilege and indifference. He's hurt his party twice, first with his cruel political showboating and now with his histrionic midlife crisis. But if his stimulus rejectionism wasn't enough to ruin his career, his behavior in the last few weeks may well be.

I've resisted writing about the Sanford spectacle to date because it was tawdry and, really, I'm tired of having to talk about sex scandals in either party. Life is hard, marriage is harder, and we all need to grow up about modern love, or at least stop judging. Unfortunately, some political sex scandals are worse than others, and more newsworthy, because of the way they pull the politician's staff, family and public agenda down with him. (I really hope that when Sanford leaves the public stage, he'll take John Edwards with him.)

Still, even if adultery is a nonpartisan problem, it's hard not to notice how the worst family-values hypocrites tend to be Republicans, from Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston, to Mark Foley and Larry Craig, to David Vitter, John Ensign and now Sanford. If they can't practice what they preach, maybe these Republican hypocrites should at least stop preaching. (They could at least open marriage up to gay people, since they're botching the institution so badly.) Mark Sanford destroyed his 2012 presidential chances last week, and he's putting his current job at risk every time he talks. His party should help him do the right thing, and resign. 

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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