Thoughts on Mark Sanford Published in The State
July 3, 2009
By BENJAMIN LADNER
Guest Columnist, The State
July 2, 2009
Governor Mark Sanford’s life and career are in a terrible tangle, and the harder he tugs on this or that thread, the more tangled they become. Some wonder whether the threads this former national GOP leader, touted as presidential material, are pulling are also unraveling the Republican Party itself.
In another time and place — say, Medieval Rome — an explanation of what happened to Sanford and what it means might have been easier: He sinned, or the devil made him do it, or his soul is being fought over by God and Satan, and he’s suffering the curse of the damned.
Bewildering to some, Sanford himself has trotted out a few of these images to explain behavior that others have described as bizarre, irresponsible and self-indulgent. What is going on, and why does he invoke such images as substitutes for explanations? Is it merely the religious-right mumbo-jumbo of a politician in trouble? The answer surely is, “yes,” as well as “only partly.” There is more.
Stories of the temptations of the flesh have, often as not, imbued physical intimacy with spiritual significance. These private pleasures can also harbor deeper meanings that transcend individuals. But that can also be said about one’s professional life (especially if viewed as a vocation or calling), one’s family, or deep and lasting friendships. The point is not that Sanford doesn’t perceive these deeper meanings — in his family, his profession or in his relation to his mistress. He does, but from a particular point of view.
It is impossible to account for the rambling, boring, excruciating, embarrassing accounts of his behavior without recognizing that point of view. It is an angle of vision shaped by the Southern religion and culture in which he was raised and which he embodies.
The cultural-spiritual framework within which Sanford now takes the measure of his life and actions, and asks us to accept, is difficult to explain in straightforward terms, especially by him. It is more like the air a Southern gentleman breathes than a collection of explicit cultural norms, moral principles or religious doctrines. Culture, morality and religion are inseparably intertwined in Sanford’s life. The more explicit he becomes in trying to explain his actions, feelings and beliefs, the more entangled, inconsistent and implausible he sounds. Difficult as it is to imagine, he thinks he’s making perfect sense.
Every day brings new details of his secret intimacies, and yet clearly he cannot help himself. He cannot just shut up long enough for the disturbing truth to register, with him or us, for fear that it will engulf him. The sad tragedy is that it already has.
Sanford daily submits to his passion for exposing publicly his other passions (clueless that they are one and the same), while searching for a cultural or religious image that, to him, seems to fit. Yesterday it was King David (minus the part about David having his lover’s husband killed); today it was a pulp fiction “love story.”
In his deep confusion about himself and his responsibilities, he has dissolved the private and public spheres into each other, as if by baring excruciating details of his intimate life he can validate and rescue his public life. Meanwhile, the ship of state drifts toward the shoals with a tortured soul at the helm.
Undoubtedly, as he himself has admitted, he is struggling to answer the question of what kind of human being he is and wants to be. But this private struggle, which he has now merged with his public duties, has consumed him. In the process, he has revealed who he is as a public figure.
Backroom political maneuvering may keep him in office another 18 months, but everyone knows his governorship, and likely any political future, is over. He has commented on his sense that he is presiding over his own “political funeral.” Let us hope, for his sake and ours, that he can now muster the courage to speak the only word that can set his life and the state’s on course: “Enough.”
Dr. Ladner, former president of The National Faculty and of American University, lives in Greenville.