Most of us do bad things. We betray friends, make hurtful remarks, lie. Often an apology will suffice in restoring trust and respect. But some very successful people engage in patterns of nutty or nasty behavior that say more about them than the misdeeds themselves.
Consider the case of disgraced former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. Wanting to resume his political career, Sanford is taking the well-worn path of confessing his sins and asking the public to forgive him. But Sanford goes a step beyond the usual by portraying his uncommon failures as ordinary frailty.
“I’ve experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes,” Sanford says in a new congressional campaign television ad. “But in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be better for it.”
We? What do you mean “we”? How is Sanford’s spectacular fall from grace about us, as opposed to about him?
To recap: Sanford left office in 2009 after being caught in an affair in which adultery was the least of his missteps. He had been flying off to Buenos Aires, reportedly on the taxpayer dollar, to visit with an Argentine TV reporter. The escapade required a lot more away time than the average tryst at a Motel 6. So Sanford concocted an imaginative story about his hiking for several days alone on the Appalachian Trail without means of contact. The web of lies blew up, as it had to.
But suppose Sanford wasn’t lying about the nature walk and was really just counting azaleas common to the southern Appalachians. He still would have been incommunicado with the bureaucracy running the state of which he was chief executive. That’s not responsible leadership.
This kind of cock-and-bull story insulted the intelligence of the electorate and put into question his own. How would he explain why no one spotted him, a state governor, on the well-traveled Appalachian Trail? (Guess he could have been wearing funny glasses with a big nose.)
What a bad liar. Who does he think he is, Lance Armstrong?
Four years have passed. Rep. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, has been named to replace Jim DeMint, who has left his Senate seat for the Heritage Foundation.
Sanford wants Scott’s open seat but must first counter questions about his character. So he’s out telling us that we will all be better human beings if we recognize that God wants Mark Sanford to have a second chance in politics.
In a similarly narcissistic vein, he told a skeptical Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “Today” show that “our brokenness as human beings is ultimately our connectiveness, and that goes to a larger article of faith.”
There remains a rather large chink in Sanford’s pious coat of armor: The wife took off, but the Argentine mistress remains in the picture.
To get around that indelicate topic, Sanford explains to National Review Online that Maria is his “soul mate.” Furthermore, they plan to marry late this summer (just in time for the congressional race).
And he frames his bizarre marital history as follows: “Tragically, a lot of people get divorced in the United States of America, and I suspect many of them have missteps along that path.”
Don’t be modest, Mark Sanford. Your divorce was special.
But for what it’s worth, I forgive you. Trouble is, lots of forgiven people have no business getting anywhere near the levers of power. You would be one.
South Carolina voters may think otherwise. They must choose their own courts of judgment – moral, psychological, political. One thing they can agree on: When it comes to sinning, Sanford’s not like most of us.
• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board.