Commentary: Sanford's bizarre escapade has not so surprising explanation

The State (Columbia, S.C.)June 26, 2009 

I went to the news conference not so much expecting news as out of a sense that this was one of those events I needed to attend. I figured I'd probably end up writing about the surreal atmosphere of reporters and bloggers and giddy political opponents lined up five, six, eight deep in a giant horseshoe around the lectern that had been set up in the lower lobby of the State House for Gov. Mark Sanford's "media availability."

This was, after all, turning into the biggest media circus our state has seen since .... Well, OK, so we get more than our fair share of less-than-desirable media attention. As Columbia attorney Joe McCullough, there to deny rumors that a Columbia woman he was representing was the governor's paramour, mused, that it'd be impossible to whittle down to a Top 10 list of our state's over-the-top unbecoming news stories.

Still, Mr. Sanford had created quite a tizzy, not just here but nationally and internationally, with his bizarre disappearing act. Governors don't just go missing for days on end. Well, apparently this one does, but we had never known about it before.

But there was nothing extraordinary to see. No flaky governor gone mad. No defiant governor lecturing the media on his right to privacy. None of the non-sequitir defenses that his ditto-heads had been spouting for the past two days. Nothing, as it turns out, bizarre about where he went or why he went there or why he wanted to keep it a secret.

Just a commonplace affair. The oldest story in history. Married man meets married woman; they become friends; they become confidants. An attraction forms, they become consumed by their own desires, they ignore their obligations to others and to God. And innocent people suffer.

To be human is to be susceptible to this temptation, at some point. Some of us are able to resist it; some of us are not. There’s nothing extraordinary about the fact that Mark Sanford – or anyone else – was not. Disappointing, absolutely. Damaging, on a personal and political level, without question. But not extraordinary. Not an adventure befitting a worldwide media frenzy.

And the purveyors of that frenzy knew that. You could tell from the calm that descended almost palpably on the lobby as it became clear that Mr. Sanford's litany of things he had said in the past couple of days that were "true" was about to be followed by a giant "but."

Reporters had been chasing the Sanford affair story all week, and the bloggers and twitterers – and not a few politicians – had been egging them on. The reporters had way more leads to pursue. And rumors. And every rumor you try to track down generates another rumor. I know from experience; I spent the summer of 1996 chasing, fruitlessly, the rumors about our previous Republican governor cheating on his wife. It's frustrating and exciting and depressing all at the same time, and I was just glad as Monday turned to Tuesday and Tuesday to Wednesday that, as an editorial writer instead of a reporter this time around, I was not going to have to be in the business of chasing such rumors this summer.

But reporters love the chase – that's one of the things that make them reporters. And there's nothing that'll kill a great hunt like the hunted surrendering. And doing so with contrition. That's what Mr. Sanford did Wednesday, and no matter how sincere he was or wasn't – and I choose to believe he was sincere – in so doing he was being very smart.

Oh, the story will make the front page of newspapers around the nation and perhaps even the world again this morning – not so much because the governor of a small Southern state admitted he cheated on his wife, but because of all the frenzy that had led up to the revelation. The blogosphere and cable news will still buzz with tales of the governor gone AWOL, and speculation about his lover and his political future. But the out-of-state reporters and photographers at Wednesday's news conference will quickly move on to their next scandal. And the rest of the twittering masses will follow, or lead.

When I left the news conference, I said a prayer for Jenny and the boys, and for Mark. And then I said a prayer for our state.

The rest of the world can chuckle or gawk, and move on. We don't have the option of moving on. We have to work through this. Figure out what comes next, and how to get there.

Even as weakened as Mr. Sanford already had made himself politically, and as weak as our state makes its governors, this is a blow that will have repercussions that we cannot imagine. I believe it is quite possible that some good will somehow come of this, but there is no question in my mind that our state will suffer. And unfortunately, there’s nothing extraordinary about that, either.

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