Magazine | July 20, 2009, Issue

Sanford’s Seventies Show

The South Carolina governor's place in the pantheon of political adulterers

These days, summer movies come in three basic flavors: the big-budget, special-effects-drenched spectacle (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek), the gross-out sex comedy (The Hangover), and the sweetly romantic chick-flick date movie (The Proposal).

Somehow, the current personal and professional meltdown of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford manages to be all three at once. It’s got it all: secret international air travel, romantic e-mails, creepy pet names — everything, frankly, but a happy ending. And that’s the problem: You can’t have a summer movie without a happy ending. What the governor really has going on here isn’t a summer movie at all, but a complicated romantic drama, the kind of movie they used to make in the 1970s, like The Way We Were and Bobby Deerfield and The Raging Moon. Lots of close-ups and longing gazes, bad lighting, sense of doom — you’ve seen it on those twee cable channels late at night and, if you’re like me, you’ve wondered to yourself, “Did these movies ever make any money?”

Which is a shame, really, because we’re all a little punch-drunk from an astonishing series of downright lurid political sex scandals — from Bill Clinton’s appetite for interns all the way down to Florida congressman Mark Foley’s tap-tapping IMs to underage boy pages — that we’ve almost lost the ability to see a grown-up love story when it’s right in front of us. Mark Sanford’s story is sweetly sad — yes, his wife is heartbroken, furious, wronged; yes, he let down his kids and his friends and his political supporters — but it isn’t weird or twisted or dirty. At least when compared with what we’ve had to endure over the past few years.

Sanford is certainly pitching it that way: “This was a whole lot more than a simple love affair,” he told the Associated Press in a foolishly long-winded interview. “This was a love story. A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.”

Which is fine if you’re pitching a Lifetime TV movie. But these days, something so earnest and, frankly, bland — governor has a wife and four sons, meets a sexy Latina at a seaside resort in Uruguay, falls in love, gets all caught up in it — doesn’t have the trashy zing we’re used to. It’s a typically uptight, repressed, Republican kind of scandal — about love and lust and romantic drama — that’s like a Henry James novel set in the Palmetto State, with a crucial dollop of Christian conservatism to give it a little shame and sin.

Ultimately, that’s what makes Governor Sanford seem like a good guy — a buffoon, maybe; a foolhardly, lovesick puppy, of course; a doomed politician, surely — but basically a good guy. He loves his Argentinian girlfriend. He loves his family. This means trouble.

Say this for the South Carolina governor: When he made his forthright, emotional confession on live television, he didn’t drag his wife onto the stage to stand there in zero-eye-contact awkwardness. Unlike, say, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, whose tautly composed wife, Silda, maintained a ramrod-straight posture, focusing her eyes on the blurry middle distance as her husband described his preference for high-priced hookers. 

Or smug, cowardly John Edwards, who cheated on his ill wife, allegedly fathered a child out of wedlock, forced an underling to take the rap, and then simpered and cavilled his way through a bunch of weasel-worded interviews, flipping his hair and grinning like Damien in Omen II. 

Or, especially, former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, who dragged his poor wife, Dina, onto the stage to bear witness to his confessions of infidelity and homosexuality, and then turned to the sickly pale, astonished woman as if to say, “Um, dear, anything you’d like to add?” He later copped to truck-stop trysts and an ongoing gay affair.

The sheer gentlemanly grace with which Sanford made his declaration — and his refusal to trash his wife, his lady on the side, or anyone else at all — makes him a kind of wonderful political and cultural hero. He treats his women better than any Democrat we’ve seen in the same spot recently. That should count for something.

Yes, yes, I know, I know: He was a governor of a state. He was AWOL for a week. What if something had happened? What if there had been some kind of Homeland Security emergency? Well, yes, okay. But honestly, I’ve been to South Carolina. I love South Carolina — one of the most beautiful towns in America, Beaufort, sits right there on the coast, all snug and gorgeous and humid. South Carolina is home to America’s greatest culinary achievement (and that’s saying something), shrimp and grits. But this needs to be said: South Carolina can go without a governor for a few days. Really, honestly: No biggie.

And I wish some of the people who find themselves so outraged and offended by Sanford’s love-struck walkabout had had the same lofty image of a governor’s indispensability back when, say, they were discussing a certain governor of Alaska. Or Texas. And also: What are they complaining about? In France, this kind of thing happens all the time.

Still, his career is probably over. The people of South Carolina — and the potential voters in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries — may have some concerns about a guy who will toss everything aside for a trip down south, who is so led by his emotions and passions. Right now, we’re in the cool phase of American politics — we like our leaders robotically programmed and unflappably empty. But that could change. The moviegoing audience — and the electorate — never want the same thing forever. They could easily develop a renewed taste for complicated, adult, romantic stories. Just like they did in the 1970s.

And with a liberal president in the White House, government spending in the stratosphere, inflation and unemployment heading steadily north, a revolution in Iran, trouble in Central America, a collapsing manufacturing sector, and soaring taxes, aren’t we in the 1970s already?

Don’t give up too soon, Governor Sanford.


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