We'll Miss Mark Sanford

Before his career went down in flames, South Carolina’s governor was a wonderfully strange character who could have led a national movement. An elegy for a Southern original.

06.24.09 6:07 PM ET

Plus, read more Daily Beast contributors' reactions to Mark Sanford's flameout.

Don't cry for Mark Sanford, beautiful Argentinean mistress. Cry for the would-be American revolutionaries Mark Sanford has let down.

If Sanford hadn't been brought down by his intercontinental philandering, it would have been something else. The sad fact is that Sanford was too interesting, too smart, and too strange to ever really make it on the national political scene, which seems to demand inhuman levels of discipline and, to put it bluntly, boringness. Even Barack Obama, with his tremendously bizarre and compelling backstory, has remade himself into a square golfing everyman, a nonthreatening Stepford president that we can all embrace. That was never going to happen to Mark Sanford, who was despised by South Carolina Republicans and Democrats alike for his mile-wide independent streak. With his intense distaste for glad-handing and unapologetic contempt for authority, Sanford had the personality you'd expect in a Unabomber-style recluse, not in the governor of a sleepy Southern state. And that's why America needed him.

Mark Sanford had the personality you'd expect in a Unabomber-style recluse, not in the governor of a sleepy Southern state.

For the last few years, Sanford's name has been floated as a serious Republican presidential contender. Those days are gone, of course, but it helps explain some of Sanford's more controversial recent moves, including his dogged effort to use a large chunk of federal stimulus dollars to pay down South Carolina's state debt. Whereas several other Republican governors preened and postured over their opposition to President Obama's stimulus package before greedily grabbing the cash, Sanford declared war on state legislators who wanted to use the funds to pay teachers and otherwise maintain basic public services in the state, one of the country's poorest. This was clearly designed to fire up the talk-radio right, but it was also a sincere expression of Sanford's admirably dogmatic small-government beliefs.

Back in 2002, when he was first elected governor, Sanford was the darling of D.C. libertarians. As one of Newt Gingrich's foot soldiers in the House of Representatives, he acquired a reputation as a budget-cutting cheapskate who, with his friend and ally Ron Paul, constantly railed against pork-barrel spending and the overweening power of the federal Leviathan. Despite his small fortune, Sanford slept in his congressional office. And his tightfistedness extended to the running of his first gubernatorial campaign, when he reportedly hunted for loose change and haggled over office supplies. His enthusiasm for school choice and firearm ownership also won him kudos from the right wing. But Sanford's total inability to play nice with the legislature stymied his most ambitious efforts, including a long-term plan to roll back South Carolina's state income tax.

All the same, Sanford's libertarian bona fides were real. In March, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a fascinating profile of Sanford that, on close examination, could have killed his presidential ambitions then and there. Sanford railed against the Federal Reserve; when asked about Michael Phelps’ arrest on drug charges, the governor rolled his eyes. And he seemed to be launching a critique of the Bush Doctrine when he told Dougherty, "I don't believe in preemptive war," a categorical statement he later inched away from in a rare bout of political cowardice. For me, though, the most telling part of the profile came at the end, when Dougherty noted Sanford's total lack of interest in University of South Carolina basketball and his inability to use basic sports metaphors. Given the macho cast of American conservatism, this might have proved a fatal flaw. His recent public weeping won't help matters.

As Sanford slinks away from the public eye, antiwar libertarians have lost their best hope of building a national movement. The 2008 uprising of Birchers, hippies, and raw-milk enthusiasts that fueled Ron Paul's quixotic bid for the White House was looking for a leader, and Sanford seemed to fit the bill. Now he'll instead spend his days doing who knows what—he'll write a book or play golf or maybe smoke a bowl while cradled in the arms of some dark-eyed South American siren. Which, when you think about it, doesn't sound that bad.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.