The Passion of Mark Sanford

The cheating governor—and his impractical, impossible love for a woman thousands of miles away—is the kind of tragic, heart-swelling tale that storybook romances are made of.

06.27.09 4:30 PM ET

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They weren’t quite Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, but South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s emails to his Argentine friend reveal a man both tortured and in love.

As such, he doesn’t fit the template of more familiar fallen men in America’s political arena. He didn’t hire a prostitute. He didn’t send lascivious emails to underlings. He didn’t behave oddly in a public restroom or solicit sex online. He didn’t hear those three little words—“You’re so hot”—and lose his senses. He didn’t plunder whatever was handy and try to parse the definition of sex.

Sanford is Everyman in search of that one thing—the gleam of approval in a woman’s eye.

He fell madly, passionately, blindingly... in love.

Reading the emails, published by The State newspaper following Sanford’s tearful confession, it is hard not to feel even greater sympathy for everyone involved. Rather than wanton expressions of lust—although there is some of that, too—most of the missives are deeply felt confessions of love, friendship, self-awareness, conflict, torment, and guilt.

One doesn’t have to excuse the transgression to see the larger content of human frailty and the quest, familiar to any with a heartbeat, for connection with the other. Eros, the life force, desperately trying to find a foothold in the arid landscape of Ordinary Life.

Love outside the bounds of convention is almost always a tragedy, without which there might be no literature. Thus, if I may part briefly from the required condemnation of his acts, the betrayal of his admirable, attractive wife and four sons, and his dishonest brokering of his executive role, I would like to propose that Mark Sanford is not a boor, but a tragic hero—Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Yuri Zhivago, the poet-doctor torn between his wife, Tonya, and the sensuous Lara.

Or a character in a Graham Greene novel, driven mad by love, tormented by the higher calling of duty, and punished by guilt. Wrote Sanford:

In all my life I have lived by a code of honor and at a variety of levels know I have crossed lines I would have never imagined. I wish I could wish it away, but this soul-mate feel I alluded too is real and in that regard I sure don’t want to be the person complicating your life.

The governor also seems unfamiliar with this rocky terrain—not an experienced casual user of women, but a man surprised by joy, desperate and unable to save himself.

I feel a little vulnerable because this is ground I have never certainly never covered before—so if you have pearls of wisdom on how we figure all this out please let me know ... In the meantime please sleep soundly knowing that despite the best efforts of my head my heart cries out for you, your voice, your body, the touch of your lips, the touch of your finger tips and an even deeper connection to your soul. I love you ... sleep tight.

If you’re the wife, of course, the crying heart is far harder to endure than the errant libido—the act of sex easier to forgive than the heart’s surrender. The prostitute or the silly girl is a mistake of the flesh, a cipher in the order of things. A “her.” An “it.”

The other woman who is intelligent and accomplished, as well as beautiful, is harder to reduce to animate object. The Maria who writes emails to Sanford from her sea-view chair on the island of Ilhabela is both at odds with her temptation and grateful to feel something as she tries to sort out her life. She even considers therapy.

Thanks for your beautiful words, I don’t know if I do need or not therapy but I have to find my new place in this new stage of my life. Life has been very generous with me and I want to return at least a little bit of what I have been given. I have time and think helping others who haven’t been as lucky as me will do me fine. . . Miss you so much . . . love you from the deepest of my heart. Sweet kisses.

The Mark Sanford who writes long emails about working on his farm, the challenges of political life, the women he has loved and who have loved him, is Everyman in search of the one thing that has driven men to heights and depths since the beginning of time—the gleam of approval in a woman’s eye.

I remember Jenny, or someone close to me, once commenting that while my mom was pleasant and warm it was sad she had never accomplished anything of significance. I replied that they were wrong because she had the ultimate of all gifts—and that was the ability to love unconditionally. The rarest of all commodities in this world is love. It is that thing that we all yearn for at some level—to be simply loved unconditionally for nothing more than who we are—not what we can get, give or become.

As he has apologized to various assemblies and individuals the past week, Sanford has invoked biblical teachings about humility and forgiveness. A cynic might question the use of religion as a landing pad when one is tumbling from a place of power into the abyss of iniquity. But Sanford quotes scripture in his love letters as well. Love is blind, yes. Love is cruel. And then there are those rare times in life, apparently, when love is downright biblical.

I looked to where I often look for advice and counsel, and in I Corinthians 13 it simply says that, “ Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude, Love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right, Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.”

But, does love forgive?

In the movie now unfolding, the wife offers forgiveness following penance. She is the tough, noble, confident, and dedicated mother, who also happens to hold all the power in her marriage. Don’t cry for me, Sullivan’s Island. The first lady of South Carolina will decide when the governor has paid enough. Or if he ever can.

The other woman always recognized that theirs was an impossible love, as she wrote in her email. He is married. She is separated. Both have children. Thousands of miles separate them. Fate did not prescribe their union during these particular revolutions of earth on its axis. Like millions of fraught lovers before and yet to follow, they may be destined to mark the remainder of their days by that singular time when the heart beats a little faster, when the light seemed a little softer, when the sweet agony of solace made them blind to the mire of reality.

In one of his emails, Sanford wrote: “I better stop now least this really sound like the Thornbirds—wherein I was always upset with Richard Chamberlain for not dropping his ambitions and running into Maggie’s arms.”

Chamberlain, of course, chose Rome over the object of his heart's ache, forfeiting love and dying a broken man. What Sanford chooses remains to be seen, but this much we know, though it pains us to admit: If this really were a movie, we’d be pulling for the Argentine.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of Save the Males.