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A Scandal Beyond Sex
A Smitten Sanford Exposes His...Love!

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Oh, we've seen sex scandals in the nation politic, lots of them.

In the men's bathroom at the Minneapolis airport, in a room off the Oval Office, on the steps of the Capitol building, in Room 871 of the Mayflower Hotel with Client 9, or Detroit's Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick cackling to his chief of staff in a text message that their hookups wouldn't be known: "LOL LOL! Damn that. Never busted. Busted is what you see! LOL."

These were awful and squeamish and sticky and made you want to go take a shower.

The drama of The Governor and Maria, now playing everywhere from South Carolina to Argentina, appears to be something else entirely. Sex doesn't appear to be the problem here.

Love does.

The planet is now aware, courtesy of an anonymous type who sent private e-mails between South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (49, married, father of four) and his lover in Argentina (identified last week as 43-year-old Maria Belen Chapur, current marital status uncertain), to the State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., which printed them Thursday.

Their electronic epistles are startling and something rarely seen anymore: adult love letters. They are possessed of maturity, passion, angst and the recognition that they are devolving into an adulterous relationship that both acknowledge is wrong and yet seem helpless to stop.

They make you stop what you're doing and wonder if you are as alive as the people writing these across continents to each other. They make you vaguely embarrassed to have read them; as if, after the funeral, you discovered love letters from your beloved aunt Polly to the church deacon, and you read them all before you could stop.

She to he, last June (writing in English, not her native tongue):

"I do love you, I can feel it in my heart, and although I don't know if we'll ever be able to meet again this has been the best that has happened to me in a long time. You made me realized how you feel when you realy love somebody and how much you want to be beside the beloved. Last Friday I would had stayed embrassing and kissing you forever."

He to she, the next week, in a note that tried to resolve the adulterous state of the affair:

"I also suspect I feel a little vulnerable because this is ground I have never certainly never covered before -- so if you have pearls of wisdom on how we figure all this out please let me know. . . . In the meantime please sleep soundly knowing that despite the best efforts of my head my heart cries out for you, your voice, your body, the touch of your lips, the touch of your finger tips and an even deeper connection to your soul."

It's pretty much Shakespearean now. The governor's wife has taken the children and left him, but says she'll have him back if he repents. Lawmakers are calling for his head. Paparazzi are circling outside the Buenos Aires apartment of The Other Woman.

"There is something admirable and authentic in his and Maria's passion for each other, empathy for each other, honesty with each other," writes Cristina Nehring, author of "A Vindication of Love," a new book about passion and romance, in an e-mail after reading the pair's letters. "That said, the relationship of course represents a moral dilemma, to which the answers are not obvious."

The passionate-but-doomed love affair is a part of life we all want to touch but not hold; it's the existential car wreck you want to watch but not experience. It's Antony and Cleopatra, Héloise and Abélard. In fiction, it's "Love in the Time of Cholera," it's "The English Patient." Great love stories. Happy endings, not so much.

Usually it's men who lose it in these things. Sanford certainly appeared helpless at his press conference Wednesday. He babbled on about the Appalachian Trail, a Bible study group, said he'd cheated on his wife, talked about how he admired his "dear friend" in Argentina and apologized all over the place. It was like watching a man taking a dive off the skyscraper of his career.

"Happy love has no history," Denis de Rougemont wrote in "Love in the Western World," more than two decades ago. "Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love but its passion. And passion means suffering."

And: "How widespread and disturbing is our fascination with the love that breaks the law. Is this not the sign that we wish to escape from a horrible reality?"

The horrible reality: That perhaps we have found, against all odds and comforts, a love that transcends the meaningless of life, of our reality of dry-cleaning receipts and stubble in the bathroom sink; and that this balm is denied to us.

She to he, at the end of a letter, referencing a small gift he promised to mail:

"Whatever you send me, I'll keep it near my bed so as to feel you nearer. Miss you so much . . . love you from the deepest of my heart. Sweet kisses."

He to she:

"You are glorious and I hope you really understand that . . . you are special and unique and fabulous."

Nehring: "Their dilemma -- between intensity and responsibility, ardor and kindness -- is an eternal dilemma which we would probably do better to pity than to disdain."

Sometimes a scandal isn't a scandal. Sometimes it's just life.

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