Different Perspective On Sanford

Ken AshfordSex ScandalsLeave a Comment

And one with which I agree, from John Dickerson at Slate:

The personal impact of the Sanford affair is more gripping than the political. Sanford has done a horrible thing to his wife and family and friends. He seemed to know and feel this more profoundly than other politicians we've seen go through this familiar apology exercise before. That doesn't excuse him. Not that he was asking that anyone excuse him. He seemed to be trying to take all the blame, as he should. Some might think his explanations were excuses. To me they seemed like a man confessing the details of a crime.

The minute Sanford started speaking, the reviews poured in via e-mail and Twitter. He was rambling, confused. He didn't tear up enough when talking about his wife. He favored his mistress. He answered the questions too thoroughly. All these judgments seemed absurd. A man standing in front of a bank of cameras in the middle of a complete collapse is going to say a lot of things poorly.

The snap judgments failed to acknowledge a grain of the fundamental human carnage we were witnessing. You can laugh at Sanford, as you can laugh at a video of a wrecked Amy Winehouse falling all over her house. But at some point, even though they did it to themselves, you have to feel sorry for them as human beings. You can do that, I think, and not be a fan of adultery or drug use.

I'm not offering Sanford's humanity as an excuse. I'm just marveling at how few people stopped for a moment to even nod to it. My thoughtful colleague William Saletan and Andrew Sullivan were exceptions. Maybe there are others. Maybe people expressed these views in private conversations. But in the e-mails and Twitter entries and blog posts I read in the aftermath, Sanford's human ruin was greeted with what felt like antiseptic glee. The pain he's caused, the hypocrisies he's engaged in, seemed like license to deny him any humanity at all.

When I read the emails, I was struck by just how human this tragedy.  And I actually felt bad for Sanford.  Not Sanford, the governor, or Sanford, the politician, but Sanford, the man.  Because the emails almost sounded like an affair of the heart.

I mean, this wasn't your run-of-the-mill family values politician being caught having random sex in airport bathroom stalls, or chasing after congressional pages indiscriminately.  At least (so it seems) there was one woman, and his interest in her seemed to transcend purely sexual interests.  In other words, this has the earmarks of an "affair of the heart", making the Sanford affair less troubling than those of his colleagues-in-disrepute, and yet more tragic.

I'm not defending him.  For his hypocrisy alone, he should be burned at the political stake.  If it turns out that the fiscal conservative used taxpayer dollars for his jaunts to Argentina, all the more reason for a downfall.  But as for the personal repercussions, I actually kind of feel bad for him (and all involved — his wife, kids, and even the other woman).

Of course, Sanford's personal tragedy reflects what is happening in thousands of households all over America.  None of those people, however, have to see it unfold on cable television (except for Jon & Kate, who I feel less sympathy for because they voluntarily gave their personal lives over to TV).

One more thought from Dickerson:

What Mark Sanford seemed to be trying to say is that he screwed up, in the biggest possible way, because he lost his bearings. He lost his self-control. He was indulgent. He forgot that there were other humans in the world. Yet in the constant flow of abuse, joke-making, and grand conclusions about his failings, it seemed everyone having a good time pointing at his self-indulgence was also engaging in a form of it.

I don't think everyone is "having a good time pointing at his self-indulgence".  There's a good time being had at Sanford's expense, but it's all schadenfreude at the hypocrisy, not the self-indulgent affair itself.  He's being hoisted by his own petard.

After all, there have been 21 major sex scandals since Bill Clinton.  Why do the Republican ones (arguably) get more press converage?  Not because the media is liberal, but because of the hypocrisy.

But Dickerson's point is valid, echoed here by John Cole:

I'm not trying to be a scold, because I know I can be as bad as anyone when it comes to the schadenfreude. And I know that Sanford has worked to marginalize a number of people who only want to be able to be married. But unlike when I watched Ensign last week and saw a tough politico with no soul doing whatever he could to just salvage his career, when I watched Sanford yesterday, I saw a confused, and lost, and hurting person.

Ditto.  Amusement existed at a time when there were only questions.  Amusement at the situation, amusement at the obvious and awkward lies….  But now that we have the answers, we're all struck with the personal nature of this "scandal" — the fact that it involves people — and it feels a little bit awkward to even know about it.  At this point, the only relevant matter is the public aspects of it: the "abandonment" of the people of South Carolina by its leader, the hypocrisy of the pro-family political stance by Sanford and others, and the hypocrisy of a fiscal conservative leader taking taxpayer money for — uh — personal use.

And perhaps, the whole affair has something to say about social conservatism in general, its fall from grace, and questions about its place (or lack thereof) in the political spectrum.

Personally, I would be happy to see Mark Sanford, both the political figure and the private man, heal.  Specifically, I hope that somewhere in that healing process he will learn something about glass houses, and purge himself from the self-righteous values voters clan (after all, they've already purged him).  But beyond the greater political and social implications (including but not limited to the political future of Mark Sanford himself, the downfall of social conservatism, the role of journalism, etc.), I no longer give a shit.