In my last post I goofed on all the conflicting stories surrounding the mystery of Governor Mark Sanford's whereabouts. Little did I know that the truth behind the incident would prove more surreal than I could possibly have imagined. The guy was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” down in Argentina, of all places, and having himself a good cry in the bargain.
I don't mean to be too flip about it, though. If you watched the poor fellow's press conference you basically saw someone having a nervous breakdown on national television. Sanford strikes me as a different sort of man from John Ensign, whose adultery and contrition over same seemed purely cynical, and which I parodied in an earlier post. Ensign doubled his mistress's salary while they were sleeping together, then fired her when the affair was over. His “backstreet romance” was more like transactional sex — like prostitution.
I see Ensign as one of those politicians who enjoy using the law to force their morality on others but feel no corresponding obligation to live up to that morality themselves. This is less about hypocrisy or ordinary human frailty than about pathological arrogance. Eliot Spitzer, on the other side of the political spectrum, seemed to suffer from the same syndrome — relentlessly prosecuting prostitution in courts of law while employing the “services” of a prostitute in private.
John Edwards, by contrast, didn't pontificate about other people's morality — his adultery seemed to proceed from narcissism of an extremely advanced variety.
Sanford's case feels more complex, and interesting. He's clearly still in love with his Argentinian bombshell, if by love we mean the pussy-fever associated with a new and transgressive sexual relationship. Some failing in the right-wing Christian culture he inhabits seems to have left him unprepared to deal with the power of that fever — you get a sense he was blindsided by it, and is still reeling from the blow.
Perhaps there is something about the rhetoric of his culture that minimizes the exaltation of sexual love, relating it too exclusively to law and duty, downplaying its delirious joy, leaving the members of that culture defenseless when the real thing emerges or re-emerges in their lives.
When it comes to adultery, I'm agin' it — I don't see it as a “pecadillo” but as a profound, existentially crippling moral failing . . . yet at the same time less about the sex involved than about a violation of trust that can almost literally rip the heart out of a partner. No amount of personal pleasure or fulfillment can justify it, but you need to have a healthy appreciation of just how much personal pleasure and fulfillment it can deliver to know what you're up against when it presents itself.
I don't think Mark Sanford had a clue. In his e-mails to his mistress he sounds like a lovesick and somewhat bewildered teenager. How did he get to the age of 49 in that condition of emotional immaturity?