Monday, June 29, 2009

The Governor's Love Story

"Yeah, he's got it bad. It's obvious he has a head-over-heels crush on that woman."
(Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage: A History", referring to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his Argentine lover, Maria Belen Chapur)

I've said several times over the years that this is not a political blog, but it seems that I'm always writing about politicians and their extramarital adventures. It would be hard not to say something about Governor Mark Sanford, whose rather amazing story has been front-page news for the past week, and which promises to drag on for some time. But I'm not interested in discussing his hypocrisy, or his irresponsibility (both to his family and to the citizens of his state), or his use of public funds to carry on the affair---I'll leave all that to the real political bloggers.

Instead, I want to comment on two aspects of the situation that distinguish it from other political sex scandals. The first is that the governor's wife has been quite vocal in expressing her displeasure with her husband's behavior, and has by no means indicated that she can or will forgive him or take him back. In my last blog entry, I mentioned that Nevada Senator John Ensign's wife was conspicuously absent when he publicly confessed his affair, but otherwise Mrs. Ensign has remained in the background. By contrast, Mrs. Sanford hasn't hesitated to speak to reporters and camera crews, even from the driver's seat of her minivan with her kids in the back seat listening to every word.

Could it be that the era of the loyal-to-a-fault political wife has finally (and mercifully) come to an end?

The other fascinating aspect of the Sanford case is that this was not a fling with a young or ambitious campaign aide, or a two-hour hotel room tryst with a prostitute. It was---and perhaps still is---a real love affair. A love affair that (supposedly) began as a long and genuine friendship, with a woman who, by all accounts, is a woman of intelligence, sophistication, and class. I'm not, by the way, implying that Mrs. Sanford doesn't have those same qualities---she definitely does, as far as I can tell, and she's good-looking, too. But when such qualities are combined with a charming foreign accent, and when the new woman seems to be on your wavelength in every way, common sense goes out the window and a man starts thinking, saying, and doing things he never dreamed possible.

To me, what makes Governor Sanford a fascinating figure is that he knew that he was risking everything---his wife, his kids, his career---when he flew down to Argentina the most recent time. He had to have known that his unexplained absence would spark widespread media coverage. He had to have known that the truth would come out quickly and relentlessly, and that the repercussions would be severe. It's as if he had a death wish. Most other straying politicians undoubtedly knew, at some level, that they were taking a big risk, but they were typically so arrogant that they never considered that they might get caught. Governor Sanford was not so much arrogant as he was fatalistic; he was determined to do what he needed to do, and let the chips fall as they may.

I'm not saying I admire the guy, but I am saying I find him interesting, complex, even tragic. Although he's a man, in one big respect he's like many of the tragic heroines of literature and film: he was willing to risk everything for an impossible love. It will be interesting to see how the story ends, but one thing is clear: the lives of everyone involved will never be the same again. But I guess that's always been the case with love.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas? Not This Time!

"Rattled, humbled, and alone at the podium, Sen. Ensign acknowledged to reporters an extramarital affair, the sort of moral failing he's criticized in the past."
(From a June 18 Associated Press story)

In a story that seems all-too-familiar, Nevada Senator John Ensign finds himself in a mess this week, his political future sinking faster than a drunk's bankroll in a Las Vegas casino.

I'll leave to others the condemnation of Senator Ensign's hypocrisy (apparently, he's been a critic of politically-prominent adulterers and a staunch defender of "family values"), but there are other aspects of this situation I find interesting. For one thing, his wife was not at his side when he faced the press. We've gotten so used to that loyal-wife-with-frozen-smile performance that we seem to have forgotten that political wives at least can be real people, not some prop for a staged press conference.

To the best of my knowledge, Mrs. Ensign has not publicly commented on the case, but her silence seems to say: "You can twist in the wind by yourself, Johnny Boy." Good for her! And good for all of us who have gotten tired of political wives being victimized a second time by being pressured to feign forgiveness and support when their world has just come undone.

I also find it intriguing that the woman Senator Ensign had the affair with, Cynthia Hampton, was the wife of his long-time top assistant, Doug Hampton, and that the two couples and their children had socialized together for years in their Las Vegas neighborhood. Obviously, familiarity can breed attraction as well as contempt, but how stupid can you be? If you're determined to have sex outside your marriage, don't do it right under the nose of your spouse. And even if you're willing to risk jeopardizing your marriage, don't also jeopardize your friendships and professional relationships.

Senator Ensign's stupidity continued even after the affair ended. Apparently, he used political campaign funds, which are closely regulated by Federal law, to try to keep Doug Hampton from going public about the affair once he found out. Whether Mr. Hampton had demanded a payout as a form of extortion is something that will undoubtedly be revealed in the weeks ahead. But the fact remains that Senator Ensign compounded his problems by inviting scrutiny of his campaign accounts, something that may lead to a criminal prosecution.

I said in my book that I'm a moral relativist when it comes to adultery, and what I mean by that is that I can sometimes sympathize with a person's temptation to have an affair, especially if he or she is in a truly unhappy marriage. I don't recommend giving in to the temptation, however, because an affair is not the best way to get what's missing in your marriage, and affairs tend to end badly. Sometimes very badly, as Senator Ensign is now finding out.