By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 25, 2009
For the past couple of days, millions have been asking a bizarre question about the governor of South Carolina: Where in the world is Mark Sanford?
Yesterday, Sanford finally returned from his mysterious absence hiking the Appalachian Trail -- no, wait, visiting his girlfriend in Argentina! -- to the well-charted location of the statehouse. But as he stood in front of the cameras for 20 minutes, it became obvious that even Mark Sanford doesn't know where in the world Mark Sanford is.
"Oddly enough, I spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina so I could repeat it when I got here," the tearful Republican governor said with the pathos of Eva Perón.
As he rambled his way through his confession of adultery, he stumbled upon incoherence: "The biggest self of self is indeed self." He meandered into the trivial: "We called it Jurassic Park because of the kids' dinosaur sheets." And, just off the plane from his last tango in Buenos Aires, he confessed the dark details: "I have seen her three times since then, during that whole sparking thing, and it was discovered."
By the standards of the PR textbook, it was a disaster: Sanford had no focus as he stuttered his way through apologies before finally saying what he was apologizing for. One moment he was talking about getting the "soccer coach or football coach to act as chaperone" for hiking trips during high school; the next moment he was philosophizing about God's law: "It's not a moral, rigid list of do's and don'ts just for the heck of do's and don'ts."
But what became clear is that he was working these issues out in front of the microphones before he had worked them out in his head. A reporter asked if he was separating from his wife. He didn't have an answer. "I -- I don't know how you want to define that," he said. "I mean, I'm here, and she's there."
In that sense, however rotten Sanford's behavior was, there was something compelling in the raw and messy nature of his confession. Politicians' acknowledgments of infidelity have become set pieces of late, the most recent coming just a week ago when Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada made a terse statement that he takes "full responsibility for my actions" -- then refused to take questions. Others, such as former Democratic New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, hauled in their wives to share the shame. Still others, such as Bill Clinton and former GOP senator Larry Craig, substituted accusations for confessions.
But this was something entirely different. At a time when every last bit of political life is scripted, here was a powerful man wiping tears from his cheeks and talking about the intimate details of his shameful behavior. His wife wasn't at his side -- she'd kicked him out and told him not to call. "The bottom line is this: I -- I've been unfaithful to my wife," the governor said. "I developed a relationship which 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. . . . But here recently over this last year it developed into something much more than that."
The disgraced politician unwisely admitted that "from a heart level, there was something real" with his mistress, and that when their affair was discovered five months ago, "we went into serious overdrive in trying to say: Where do you go from here?"
When the cameras started rolling, Sanford looked down at his notes. "Umm," he said. He scratched his head. "I won't begin in any particular spot," he said, accurately as it turns out. He began with his high school hiking trips, when he'd "get folks to give me 60 bucks each, or whatever it was, to take the trip."
The nationally televised stream of consciousness went from travel adventures to state budget politics, until Sanford finally said this was "not the whole story," and offered to "lay it out." But before laying it out, he first went on an extensive round of apologies. He apologized to his wife. He apologized to his sons. He apologized to his staff for making them believe, and tell the world, the fiction that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
"I want to apologize to anybody who lives in South Carolina," he continued, and "I want to apologize to good friends." He particularly wanted to apologize to a friend named Tom Davis, whose name Sanford invoked five times. The governor moved on to a moral discussion of God's law, before stopping to "throw one more apology out there" -- to his fellow religious faithful who are disappointed in him. "So one more apology in there," he offered. Check.
After much wandering, the itinerant Sanford arrived at his destination: He was an adulterer. He detailed the "innocent" beginnings ("we swapped e-mails, whatever") up to the time it "sparked into something more than that," and even the "surreal" conversation with his father-in-law.
"When you live in the zone of politics, you can't ever let your guard down," he explained, because "it could be a front-page story." But with his Argentine lover, "there was this zone of protectiveness," because "she lives thousands of miles away and I was up here."
Within hours, the little that Sanford had left to the imagination had been filled in by e-mails from the relationship that were obtained by the State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.: "You have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses. . . . I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself."
Sounds like a good time on the Appalachian Trail.