How quickly things change. I had already written three-quarters of a column last week about the unfolding events at the Statehouse. It took the form of a satirical open letter to Gov. Mark Sanford, commiserating with him about the pressures of work and the need to get away from it all from time to time. In less than 12 hours the governor's alleged Appalachian Trail hike had turned from whimsical misadventure into a tragedy of near-Shakespearean proportions.
Among those trying to repair his damaged reputation is your humble correspondent. Barely an hour before the news conference in which our governor committed political hara-kiri with his announcement of an extra-marital affair, I was having lunch with an out-of-state friend, explaining that whatever the governor was up to, it had nothing to do with women, booze, or drugs. "He's a straight arrow," I told her. "He lacks the imagination for an affair."
Now you know why I never made the major leagues of political analysis.
Of course, I was the least of Mark Sanford's victims. Among the greatest was Sanford's long-suffering wife, Jenny. She managed his first gubernatorial campaign out of their house in 2002, even as she managed the house and their four sons, and she was widely credited with helping to engineer the primary defeat of Sen. John Kuhn, a Charleston Republican and one of her husband's sharpest critics in 2004. And for nearly 20 years, some might say, the industrial heiress has been not only his confidante and aide, but his meal ticket. This is her reward?
In his statement to a packed and hungry press gallery at the Statehouse, Sanford said last week that his wife had known about the "relationship" with an unidentified Argentine woman for five months, and in that time he and his wife had been trying to "work through" this painful situation.
Five months. That almost exactly corresponds with the surreal period in which our governor very loudly and piously refused to accept $700 million in federal stimulus funds directed at state schools and law enforcement. In the face of the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation and brutal criticism from leaders of his own party, Sanford insisted that any stimulus money must be used to pay down state debt. When the General Assembly passed legislation forcing him to accept the money, he went to the state Supreme Court, where he lost the battle and finally surrendered.
Throughout the protracted dispute, there was something unsettling and almost maniacal about Sanford's self-righteousness and his dismissal of all criticism. Now we learn that this public drama was playing out at the same time the private drama of his failing marriage was unfolding off stage. I leave it to his shrink to explain the dynamics of that duality, but I find it rather frightening. And this guy was grooming himself for the presidency!
Now it's just a question of what Mark Sanford should do next. At the news conference last Wednesday, he refused to answer a question about whether he would resign. My question would be — what else can he do?
Sanford has never had an effective working relationship with the General Assembly. His gubernatorial tenure has been a constant train of name-calling and finger-pointing, of vetoes and veto-overrides. But he possessed a populist appeal, based on his image as a maverick and man of principle. Now that is gone, along with any moral authority to govern.
And his current behavior brings his past record into high profile. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he voted to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998, in connection with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"I think it would be much better for the country and for him personally (to resign)," Sanford said during the impeachment debate. "I come from the business side ... If you had a chairman or president in the business world facing these allegations, he'd be gone."
What allegations? That Clinton had an affair or that he lied to cover it up? It doesn't matter in Sanford's case, because he is guilty of both, having told his staff that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was, in fact, flying to Argentina to meet his mistress.
Of course, the greatest victim of this fraud has been the people of South Carolina. They were gulled by yet another charlatan, who violated their trust and embarrassed them on CNN.
Did they learn anything? Of course not! They will give their votes to the next smooth-talking huckster who knows how to use the code words of white identity and Christian evangelism. And to look at the host of Republican candidates lining up for the job, they will have plenty to chose from.