This time, it’s Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina.
We’re never surprised, are we? When some Bible-thumping, traditional family values, cast-the-first-stone, holier-than-thou, GOP politician turns up in some Madame’s little black book, or on a Congressional page’s unsavory Flickr page, or in between his mistress’ satin sheets wearing only whipped honey and a toothy grin, we shake our heads at human frailty. Then we wait for the late-night comics to turn that frailty into human stupidity so we can laugh because it’s better to laugh than to cry, right?
But as much guilty fun as schadenfreude may be, is it really good for us? What does it do except lure us into the self-same glass houses that we happily watch these poor, barefoot bastards trying to tiptoe their way out of? We don’t even know we’re doing it, but as we watch — See? There he goes! Point your finger! Are you pointing? Scold! Are you scolding? — we’ve stepped behind the plate glass window. We forget that schadenfreude is like a game of tetherball. You’re human. You’re fallible. Some way, somehow, you’re going to cock it up. It doesn’t matter how hard you pay attention, sooner or later, that ball’s going to swing around that poll smack you right in the face. If you’ve really been yukking it up at someone else’s expense, it might just break your nose.
Our latest object lesson is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who disappeared from his state and his job for several days while his staff tried to convince people that he was either hiking the Appalachian Trail, or working on a book, or doing something that required he be out of touch and out of sight. It was a bizarre spectacle, and because Sanford was a prominent politician, frequently mentioned as a possible presidential contender, the press swarmed. Because Sanford is a conservative Republican, because he’s a Traditional Family Values proponent, and because he loudly condemned Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky way back when, he’s been cheap and easy fodder for the lazy Op-Ed writers of America for well over a week. There’s nothing Op-Ed writers love more than a hypocrite; the columns just write themselves.
Except there’s more to all of this than the lazy columnists have chosen to see. In fact, what we, the jaded but prurient, expected when Sanford stepped before the microphones and confessed to an extramarital affair was the usual GOP “I have sinned” speech. Well, of course he’d sinned. All Republicans have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s probably an official plank in the GOP platform. Only Democrats are forbidden to sin, and that’s because Republicans have officially claimed the whole of Religion for themselves. If you can’t sin, you can’t be forgiven, and so whatever you’ve done is simply irredeemably bad. So, Mark Sanford stepped forward to become the latest in a long line of sinned/forgiven/redeemed Republicans. Another Newt Gingrich. Another David Vitters. Ho hum.
But that wasn’t the story Mark Sanford told. He didn’t stick to the script. He told the painful truth about his “impossible situation of love,” and in so doing he managed to humanize everyone involved. This wasn’t Elizabeth Edwards’ bitter tale of peculiarly single-sided betrayal, a story in which she works overtime to absolve her husband by demonizing a very ordinary woman and dehumanizing the woman’s surely innocent baby. Mark Sanford took the harder route. What he showed — and what he said — are truths people don’t usually share. They’re too stark. They’re too raw. They’re not the stuff of political confessions but of long, sad novels or short, thoughtful poems.
I find myself wishing Mark Sanford well. I don’t want to see him on the next presidential ticket, but that has less to do with his party affiliation than a belief that he feels things too deeply to be any good at the job. The presidency is a pragmatist’s game. It’s not for the man who drops everything to fly to Argentina to bare his soul. Mark Sanford is a poet who somehow got lost in two capitals on his way to the East Village. What I hope is that he’ll soon find his way off the Op-Ed pages and into a future of his choosing. If his marriage works out, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. The man is only 49. The choice before him now is not what he can salvage of his old life, but what kind of new life he’d like to build. His redemption lies not in following a ready-made script — something he seems to have done for the first half of his life — but in writing a new story. How he chooses to do that would be interesting to see, but frankly, it’s none of my business.