Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sanford’s travels down Argentina way

Just when you were certain there were no more wounds for the Republican Party to self-inflict; when it seemed the GOP had done all the damage to itself that could be done between elections … a fresh scandal arrives, one with seamy, steamy sordid aspects — the kind of thing we’d been conditioned to believe the Republicans were morally immune to.

Unless of course you count David Vitter. Or Mark Foley. Or Larry Craig. Or John Ensign.

To their, uh, swelling number we can now add the name of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose frank talk with the state’s media — and by extension, the rest of the country — on Wednesday revealed an extramarital affair that will doom his political prospects, and further doom his party’s political prospects, for 2012.

“I’ll lay it out,” Sanford said Wednesday in a media scrum outside his office in in Columbia, S.C., the state capital. “It’s going to hurt, and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. I’ve let down a lot of people. That’s the bottom line.”

A snapshot of this tale of the wayward heart begins on June 18, Thursday last, when Sanford apparently left the governor’s mansion alone and driving a black state vehicle to Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

The official statement from his office was that the governor had been taking some time away from the rigors of his elected office to go and hike the Appalachian Trail over Father's Day weekend. He wasn’t seen or heard from for the next six days. The lieutenant governor wasn’t notified of his absence until Sunday.

Sanford turned up again on early Wednesday morning, this time at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, said to be the nation’s busiest. And this time he had a surprise visitor: a reporter from The State newspaper of South Carolina.

According to The State, Sanford
said he decided at the last minute to go to the South American country to recharge after a difficult legislative session in which he battled with lawmakers over how to spend federal stimulus money.

Sanford said he had considered hiking on the Appalachian Trail, an activity he said he has enjoyed since he was a high school student.

“But I said ‘no,’ I wanted to do something exotic,” Sanford said. “…It’s a great city.”

In bits and pieces, we’ve discovered just how great it was. The State reported that, later on Wednesday, Sanford owned up to his recent whereabouts, revealing that his secret trip was nowhere near the Appalachian Trail, but really to the Barrio Palermo district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, for an assignation with “Maria,” a mother of two teenage children, the object of affection who was not his wife.

◊ ◊ ◊

All of this was known already, as it turns out. Since at least December, The State had apparently been in receipt of various e-mails between the governor and the woman in Argentina, Internet bon mots that read like Harlequin romance off the rails. Sanford was surely confronted with this not long after after he got off Delta Flight 110 on Wednesday.

The news conference later that day was strange, even in the annals of official confession. Sanford engaged in a protracted exposition, part biography, part political defense, part moralistic disquisition. He took forever to get to the point; there was a lot of preamble to the preamble before he dropped the mea culpa shoe.

“And so the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a — what started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth, in advice on one's life there and advice here.

“But here recently over this last year, it developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. … I hurt a lot of different folks. And all I can say is that I apologize.”

Later, Sanford resigned from his post as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Here’s the transcript. Bring your lunch.

◊ ◊ ◊

Sanford’s political radioactivity has begun, right along with his status as the object of pointed humor you'd expect after something like this. He’s the butt of jokes already.

“We’ve learned that the Appalachian Trail extends from the Berkshires in Georgia to Buenos Aires — a geographic revelation to us all,” said Jim Warren on Wednesday, on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

And invariably, the Chyron artists of the language boiled it all down cleverly, in a catchphrase that’ll stick like Super Glue: “Sanford & Sin.”

Needless to say, any talk about Sanford pursuing the presidency is off the table. The obituaries started early. “It’s over — totally, completely, forever,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to Wayne Washington of The State. “This is dereliction of duty,” he said. “That’s how the public will look at this. Forget about hurricanes. With them, you get a warning. What about an outbreak of tornadoes? A governor is supposed to be close at hand.”

Some have suggested the key to his rehabilitation lies with his wife, the state’s first lady, Jennifer Sullivan Sanford, an heir to the Skil Corp. powertool fortune.

After it all exploded on Wednesday, Jenny Sanford said in a statement that she asked the governor to leave their home — on Sullivan’s Island — two weeks earlier.

“This trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage,” she said.

“The key to this is Jenny,” David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University, told The State. “If she’s a jilted wife, I think it would be awfully hard for him to hang on.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But no. The governor of the state of South Carolina is a hollow man today. Mark Sanford was often thought of, even by fellow Republicans, as a libertarian quixotic, an odd duck in GOP circles. This won’t do a thing to favorably move that perception.

And more importantly to the citizens of South Carolina, the governor of the state was AWOL, off the grid, nowhere to be found for days at a stretch. Vanished, not doing the people’s business, leaving a state of 4.5 million people rudderless and leaderless in the face of emergency.

On the one hand, you want to give the man credit for being able to disappear completely in a media-relentless, 24/7 world.

But like John McCain’s campaign stunt of pretending to be on his way to Washington when he was really in a New York TV studio, Sanford’s international affair speaks volumes about his character, and his priorities. The citizens of South Carolina won’t forget it. The citizens of the rest of the United States will never have a chance to worry about it.

As his party does damage control the rest of this week, adjusting to yet another family-values body blow — the second in two weeks — Sanford is doing his best to stand firm as governor, disregarding (for now) any talk of resignation. He’s getting more advice than he can use right about now.

The best of it might be to just hunker down, disappear and break out the Skil saw to work on rebuilding his marriage. And nothing else. To the degree that his hopes for the presidency ever had a foundation to start with, that hope’s now a condemned property.
Image credit: Sanford: Still from ETV news conference pool feed. Sanford cartoon: Dwane Powell, Raleigh News & Observer (McClatchy Newspapers). Sanford II: South Carolina Governor's Office.

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