Mark Sanford Is a Romantic Hero

Don’t stick the philandering South Carolina governor in the same lot with John Ensign, David Vitter, and other GOP scandal victims. When he flew to Argentina, Sanford was after something like real love. And what’s so wrong with that?

06.26.09 10:08 PM ET

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford spent last weekend in Florida with Maria Belen Chapur, his Argentinian paramour. At a news conference, Sanford said, "As a matter of record, everybody in this room knows exactly who I was with over the weekend. That is no mystery to anybody given what I said last summer. And, you know, the purpose was obviously to see if something could be restarted on that front given the rather enormous geographic gulf between us. And time will tell. I don't know if it will or won't."

Don’t stick the philandering South Carolina governor in the same lot with John Ensign, David Vitter, and other GOP scandal victims. When he flew to Argentina, Sanford was after something like real love. And what’s so wrong with that?

The rituals of political disgrace—the prostitute or office aide, the press conference and prepared statement—are by now so familiar that we have come to take them for granted. But does South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford really deserve to be yoked to David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, and John Ensign? If we consider his affair on its own merits, and not simply as the latest chapter of Republican disgrace, could it be that he behaved… admirably?

Like Craig & Co., Sanford was a culture warrior who ran afoul of his own pronouncements. Abandoning his sons on Father’s Day was selfish and leaving his state ungoverned for a week was reckless. But are not selfishness and recklessness the signs by which great love is often recognized? Sanford was not some suited lecher, seeking a cheap lay on the side. Lest we become blind with schadenfreude, it’s worth pointing out that Sanford did something with his life and career that we are not much accustomed to and which, at least in art, we admire: He laid them on the line for love.

Compare Mark Sanford’s passionate emails to Mark Foley’s “did you spank it this weekend yourself.”

Coinciding with Sanford’s disclosure was the publication of Cristina Nehring’s book A Vindication of Love, in which she argues that “It is the trivialization of love that is the tragedy of our time. It is the methodical demystification, recreationalization, automization, commercialization, medicalization, and domestication of Eros that is making today’s world a so much flatter place.”

Nowhere has the banishment of love and passion been more complete than it has in politics. An ordinary, domestic marriage is practically prerequisite to accomplishment: It was suspicious when, after being a bachelor for 30 years, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist married in 2008, just as the Republican presidential candidates started considering running mates. The American public seems to demand that its public figures’ personal lives be hidebound in normalcy. The primary purpose of a political marriage is to project stability, not passion, which can actually be detrimental, as Al Gore learned when he laid one on Tipper in 2000.

What’s fascinating about Sanford is that he was not simply seeking a few thrills so that he could better preserve the illusion of a stable marriage. He was genuinely pressing against the limits of the life that he had chosen. His emails to his Argentinean lover, Maria, are filled with conflictions—he writes of their “hopelessly impossible situation of love,” and tells her that “unfortunately all the feelings you describe are mutual.”

Compare Sanford’s words to Mark Foley’s “did you spank it this weekend yourself,” or Sanford’s Buenos Aires escape to Larry Craig’s misdeeds in airport bathrooms. Most political affairs are not “hopelessly impossible.” They are crassly convenient, seeking the easiest routes—typically, underlings and prostitutes—to sexual relief. Sanford is different. The distance between him and his lover shows that this was not about sex or convenience. Sanford has been coming to terms with a shock that his conservative and Christian beliefs could not have predicted and ought to have precluded. At his press conference, he was visibly anguished, rambling endlessly as he tried to wrap words around his emotions. By having an affair, Sanford was not hypocritically flouting his public values, but trying to reconcile them with his private desires: Writing to Maria, he turns to the famous “Love is patient, love is kind” passage in Corinthians for counsel. In another email, he writes, “I have lived by a code of honor and at a variety of levels know I have crossed lines I would have never imagined.”

It is precisely by the crossing of lines that great love is recognized in art. But in life, Nehring writes, “love is—or ought to be—an organized adult activity with safety rails on the left and right, rubber ceilings, no-skid floors, and a clear, clean destination: marriage.” Mark Sanford collapsed the distinction, and, in doing so, reintroduced emotional complexity to the political sphere, which typically thrives on simplifications. Even if we cannot applaud his actions, we can at least understand them. By failing as a husband, a father, and a politician, Sanford became a romantic hero.

Ben Crair is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.