Parker column: Don’t cry for Mark Sanford

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A wise man once said that love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
No one who managed to get through the torture of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s news conference admitting to an affair would disagree.
Yes, I know, shocking. Another Republican affair. Next thing you know, we’ll learn that a Democrat hasn’t paid his taxes. There does seem to be a pattern of failure in those matters about which people purport to care the most.
If we were feeling charitable, we might say something about man’s fallen nature and his attempt to repair himself through public works. Thus, Republicans touting family values can’t seem to stay zipped. Democrats raising taxes can’t seem to spare the change come April.
We might conclude that public espousals carry certain risks of self-incrimination.
Before charity exhausts its welcome, let’s do give Sanford this much: He has a flair for the dramatic in what otherwise would have been merely banal. Nothing like vanishing for a few days amid lies, mystery and frenzied speculation to get that “whole sparking thing” going, as Sanford ickily described his affair.
That was but one of many bits of information the governor might have spared the world ó and especially his family. His news conference felt like a combination AA meeting-tent revival, filled with self-recrimination and flagellation, absent only the sackcloth, ashes and Oprah. Although his agony seemed sincere enough to make me want to offer the man a cigarette, his apparent need to drag everyone else along his Via Dolorosa was both personally embarrassing and politically disastrous.
The man would not stop talking. But first he wouldn’t start. Even though most cable news channels covered the spectacle live ó and the room was fairly bursting with media and equipment ó Sanford began with a wistful recounting of his adventurous youth when he loved to hike the Appalachian Trail. What? He spoke for five minutes about those good ol’ days before moving, finally, to the point: Where did he go, with whom, and why?
One sensed that the governor was afraid to put a period at the end of the sentence, whereupon his own sentence would begin. As long as he talked, he could entertain an illusion of control over his life.
People generally will forgive human frailty, especially in matters of the flesh. After too many such public trials, schadenfreude begins to feel as unseemly as the original sin.
But Sanford’s foray into iniquity has potential repercussions beyond what he and his wife ultimately resolve. He did disappear for several days, five of which he confessed to having spent “crying in Argentina.” What is it about that place?
And, there’s no nice way to put this, he lied ó by omission if not commission.
He lied by not telling his staff where he was going or how to reach him. He deceived his staff by allowing them to believe and then report to the media that the governor was hiking in the Appalachians. And most important to his political future, he failed to make arrangements for his state’s uninterrupted governance.
To his credit, Sanford acknowledged all of these failings, but he seemed less interested in discussing his shirking of executive duty than in making rending statements about the condition of his heart. Not only did we learn Sanford’s philosophy of moral absolutes, but we were led through the meaning and purpose of God’s laws. The governor even lectured on the definition of sin.
Spiritually, Sanford may have succeeded in checking off several acts of contrition. But politically, he did everything wrong ó invoking religion, apologizing endlessly, and acknowledging friends in a sort of reverse intervention.
Meanwhile, the questions that matter remain essentially unaddressed. Can a governor lie about his whereabouts and leave the country while his state is untended? Were taxpayer funds ever used in the pursuit of his personal gratification? Exactly a year ago, Sanford went on a South Carolina trade and investment trip to Brazil and Argentina. Undoubtedly, that trip’s receipts will be closely examined.
If not for Sanford’s appalling judgment in disappearing, his personal travails might never have come to public light. That alone suggests that he is a man unmoored from reality and, just possibly, unfit for public office.
Sanford ended his tearful remarks by saying he was committed to getting his heart right. It might serve him better to think about getting his head right.
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Kathleen Parker writes for the Washington Post. E-mail her at