Columbia, SC: The news vans lined up outside the South Carolina State House on Thursday, along with a bright pink Chevy Suburban advertising The Cheat Book, which advertises itself as "The Ultimate Guide on How to Cheat on Your Woman." I doubt it has a sections on how not to formulate a patently dumb cover story or use a publicly-funded trip to visit your mistress if you're the chief executive of a state, but maybe that will come in the 2nd edition.
The Recession Roadtrip just happened to have me traveling through South Carolina when Gov. Mark Sanford reappeared after five days of being AWOL. It didn't immediately strike me that I needed to write something about the scandal, until it became clear how significantly the recession is affecting South Carolinians' response to their governor's behavior.
To summarize the dominant sentiment I have heard echoed across many discussions of the situation: people aren't so upset that Gov. Sanford was screwing around on his wife, but they are furious that he was screwing around on the state when its residents are living through such a dismal economic reality.
In the pointed words of one gas station attendant I talked to in Chester, the eponymous seat of a county with nearly 22% unemployment: "People here don't have money for vacation. They barely have money for food. So why's our governor off chasing tail down in South America. Doesn't he have work to do?"
On the morality question, the majority seem to grant the governor forgiveness for a very human error. The more left-leaning a person is, the more they seem to take offense at the hypocrisy in what they perceive as the governor's cynical exploitation of religion for the sake of his public image. The more conservative tend to believe the contrition Gov. Sanford expressed during his news conference Wednesday, stressing forgiveness as a critical element of their religious beliefs.
I have heard, however, a number of religious conservatives express a very personal sense of violation by a man they held in such high esteem specifically because of his outward expression of the Christian faith. Ginny Ransom of Columbia said it best: "He is not only a public representative of my state, but he is also a public representative of my religion. After what's happened, I can't honestly say I'm even sure he is a real Christian. Maybe I'm taking this too personally, but I feel as violated as if my own husband had cheated on me. I guess that speaks to how much I respected my governor until this news came out."
Granted there is nothing scientific in my assessment of the "majority" view. I'm just reporting a general sense of what I've heard people discussing in restaurants, gas stations, and on the street. And, boy, are they discussing it. Since Wednesday's press conference, I haven't been able to enter a public space in South Carolina without hearing keywords like "Sanford," "Argentina," and "hussy" floating through the air.
Even as the scintillating aspects of a sex scandal has everyone chattering, the discussion always comes back around to the economy. "What is he doing fucking around when the state he is supposed to be managing is in the shitter?," one unemployed resident of Blythewood argued with ferocious outrage.
The overall unemployment rate in South Carolina has surpassed 12%, making it the third worst in the nation. To most South Carolinians I either spoke to directly or overheard, that's what makes Gov. Sanford's conduct hard to forgive. In "gallivanting with his girlfriend," he has been "ignoring the suffering of his people," or "forgetting who he was elected to serve," or "using his public position and our money to get laid." The term "dereliction of duty" gets tossed around circles of nodding heads.
I have no idea whether or not Gov. Sanford will resign as a result of this scandal. But I do think it's patently obvious that he wouldn't emerge the victor if he was able to run for re-election.