Commentary: Criticism of Sanford's absence came from bitter opponents

June 24, 2009 

It's too early to reach any sweeping conclusions about Gov. Mark Sanford's disappearing act, particularly since he hasn't yet had a chance to respond to charges of dereliction of duty, but a few things seem pretty safe to say.

First, we all need to recognize that the feigned hysteria was whipped up by some of the governor's fiercest political enemies and some of the staunchest allies of the man who is supposed to act as governor if the governor is unavailable, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.

Senate Democratic Leader John Land’'s affected concerns about the governor's mental well-being and Sen. Jake Knotts questions about the propriety of the governor driving a police vehicle, for instance, were pretty transparent. Even Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell laid it on a bit thick when he couched an otherwise measured statement about the need to eliminate ambiguities in the state constitution in terms of the great importance and responsibilities of the governor.

The fact is that the governor of South Carolina has precious little authority, and Sen. McConnell has spent much of his political career – along with Sens. Land and Knotts – trying to make sure it stays that way.

Of course, making himself incommunicado for four days is not a particularly smart strategy for a governor who wants to strengthen the office. More significantly, there are certain things that our constitution allows only the governor to do, the most urgent being to oversee the National Guard in times of emergency. That's why the constitution requires that the duties be turned over to the lieutenant governor "in the event of the temporary absence of the Governor from the State."

Technology has gradually slimmed down the definition of "absence," to the point that a governor can remain in charge even when he's out of the country – so long as he's easily reachable by his staff.

The problem with the governor's head-clearing hiking trip is that he wasn't easily reachable. His staff and wife couldn't reach him, and he didn't bother reaching them from the time he drove off in a SLED vehicle Thursday afternoon until he called in Tuesday morning. (We were not at all comforted by the assurance that this is typical behavior on his part.)

The governor deserves time to himself. But it's not asking too much for him to keep his cell phone turned on when no one knows precisely where he is.

To read the complete editorial, visit The State (Columbia, S.C.).

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