Maybe it’s just because I’m cross-eyed with jet lag, but as I caught up on the Mark Sanford saga today, I found myself feeling some sympathy for him. Yes, it’s sympathy for the devil. Daisy Deadhead has amply documented how, with his grandstanding refusal to accept federal stimulus money, he was willing to sell out his state for his presidential ambitions. Politically, Sanford is poison, and so I’m happy to see his national aspirations dashed. I also totally get how satisfying it is to see yet another Republican culture warrior hoist on his own hypocrisy. I feel deeply sorry for his wife and kids, who are being dragged through the muck thanks to his transgressions. He’s been a real jackass toward them.
So why the sympathy? Why not just contempt or schadenfreude?
Because Sanford would have been better off if he’d only gone hiking naked on the Appalachian Trail (as one rumor had it). He’d have been less exposed. Now we have confessions about crying for five days straight while he was in Argentina with his paramour, Maria. Now we have the texts of his emails. And what’s revealed is in a different universe than Eliot Spitzer’s visits to prostitutes (whom he allegedly bullied and coerced into rough, condom-less sex) and Bill O’Reilly’s loofah (or falafel?) fetish.
Here’s what softened my heart toward Sanford. In one of his emails to his mistress, Maria, he wrote:
As I mentioned in our last visit, while I did not need love fifteen years ago — as the battle scars of life and aging and politics have worn on this has become a real need of mine. … 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”. In this regard it is action that goes well beyond the emotion of today or tomorrow and in this light I want to look for ways to show love in helping you to live a better — not more complicated life.
Sanford’s straying was not a mere dalliance with a call girl or hottie half his age. He seems to have fallen deeply in love – so deeply that he appears deaf to the irony of quoting the Bible verse that’s a standard fixture at Christian weddings. In fact, he’s fallen clear off the deep end, flying off to Argentina for a few days in hopes of sorting out what he called a “hopelessly impossible situation of love.” His political instincts are so warped by passion that at his presser, he apologized first to Maria and only secondly to his wife and kids.
Obviously, he would have been far wiser, kinder, and more ethical had he put his energy into rekindling love with his wife. He didn’t do that. Quite possibly he didn’t realize what he needed until it ambushed him. In this, Sanford is not evil. He’s not even particularly a politician or a Republican.
He’s just frail and human. Like the rest of us.
Adultery differs from other transgressions in that so many of us are capable of committing it. Most of us would steal or kill only under great duress – in defense of self and family – but the bar is set far lower for adultery. Kinsey found that 50% of men and 26% of women had extramarital sex in their lifetimes. Recent, more conservative studies put those estimates at 28% for men and 15% for women.
As for the rest of us? Most of us, like Jimmy Carter, have “lusted in our hearts.” Those illicit lusts ought to humble us enough to realize that we’ve all got it in us; that adulterers aren’t a whole ‘nother species. While I’ve never crossed that line, I don’t fancy myself impervious.
Maybe Sanford did think he was above it all. I suspect that’s a professional risk of being a culture warrior. Human frailty may be universal, but Republicans have had more than their share of sex scandals. I have to wonder if perching on such high horses sets them up for a fall. Sanford wrote Maria that he was totally blindsided:
How in the world this lightening strike snuck up on us I am still not quite sure. As I have said to you before I certainly had a special feeling about you from the first time we met, but these feelings were contained and I genuinely enjoyed our special friendship and the comparing of all too many personal notes (and yes this is true even if you did occasionally tantalize me with sexual details over the years!) — but it was all safe. Where we are is not. I have thought about it and in some ways feel I let you down in letting these complications come into a friendship that I hope will last till death. 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.
A rigid, over-confident “code of honor” – fixated on rules but blind to desire – can destroy self-awareness. Sanford didn’t think himself capable of an affair. Even now, he sounds as though he hasn’t registered the hypocrisy in the gap between his public moral code and his private passions. Might he have kept his vows to his wife if he’d been less arrogant?
Maybe not. We don’t know much about the dynamics of his own marriage, except that his wife Jenny has said, “I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will, and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal.” While that’s true, there’s more to love and marriage than just duty and obligation. If I were Jenny, obligation would probably be all that stopped me from filing for divorce straightaway (and boy am I glad she didn’t feel her duty included standing by Mark at his confessional press conference). She’s stuck with him for months, trying to save the marriage after learning of his affair. Yet it’s also possible that over the years, obligation stifled actual love, leaving only an empty shell. Though my only personal knowledge comes from dating a College Republican when I was 18, I imagine political marriages are more apt than most to be crushed by the weight of duty.
But just maybe, Sanford could have stayed faithful if his self-image hadn’t been so pure. He might not have “crossed lines I would have never imagined” if his imagination could have grasped the possibility of his own moral fallibility.
And just maybe, it’s not only politicians who suffer from misplaced arrogance about their own morality. Americans seem to regard sexual infidelity as just about the worst offense a person could commit. The right and the left seem to be united on this point. Indeed, so many people express an unseemly glee when cheaters get caught, you might imagine that the cheaters were a vanishingly small minority instead of 15-25% of the population. (Take for instance this comment thread at Pandagon, then multiply that example by infinity.) Even among sexual liberals who countenance open relationships and all manner of formerly “deviant” behavior, adultery remains the one cardinal sin – the one delict that can never be relativized or contextualized, as if no other action could possible inflict worse harm on a relationship. In the wake of John Edwards’ affair last summer, Hesperia questioned why this is so:
Truth is, although I know sexual infidelity is a deep hurt, I’m always curious as to why “we” put it at the top of the pile of marital sins. Perhaps it’s partly because it’s one of the sins we can see clearly when it emerges, but I do think there’s some messed up views about sex and its meaning present as well. I had a partner who “cheated”, but the cheating was way down on the list of the transgressions and was a sign of a much more profound unfaithfulness.
I’m not saying that adultery is right, or that the hurt it inflicts is trivial. Not at all. My own parents broke up over an affair and all the lies it entailed.
Yet I wonder if our collective judgmentalism about affairs is perversely and paradoxically making marriages more vulnerable to infidelity. I can understand why Republicans cling to judgmentalism; they’d have to rebrand themselves if they gave it up. The rest of us might do better to admit that we’re fallible, that we’re capable of straying, and that we may struggle to keep our promises – lest we too be left wondering “how in the world this lightning strike snuck up on us.”