Not all affairs are equal. Streaks of Puritanism still run deep in American culture, and many pundits and politicians lump extramarital activities together, when they should split them apart.
Mark Sanford's comeback victory in a special South Carolina congressional election has many commentators outraged. Jonah Goldberg, at the National Review, writes that "adultery should have a higher social cost" in his editorial on the former governor's reemergence into politics. Joan Walsh, editor-at-large of Salon, used a little less subtlety last week when she wrote a piece under the headline, "How The Creep Might Actually Win." New Yorker humor writer Andy Borowitz provided a preview of the track many late night talkshow hosts will run to the death, writing, "Sanford's win gives hope to liars."
As governor of South Carolina, Sanford was "disgraced" in 2009 after leaving the state for six days to win the affection of Maria Belen Chapur, an Argentinean journalist with whom he fell in love after visiting the country on an official trade trip. Upon his return to South Carolina, he explained his abrupt and reckless departure with a beautiful tribute to the power of romance. "I can now die knowing that I met my soul mate." Sanford is currently engaged to Chapur.
Following the affections of the heart and the truth of the imagination is a life course that Americans regularly celebrate in novels, films, and lessons to children. If Sanford's story were the fodder for a romantic comedy, one can easily imagine Ryan Gosling in the lead role as a young politician dropping everything, leaving his packing up, and flying off to an exotic location to declare his undying love for a beautiful journalist played by Penelope Cruz; all it would take is a couple of early scenes that alienate the politician's wife from the audience. But the public rarely respects when someone actually pursues true love. Being a romantic is always messier and harder in the real world of consequences, but one can argue, that the sloppiness and risk involved only makes those who live according to emotionalism, rather than utilitarianism, all the more brave.
Reality is more complicated than Hollywood, and in the case of Mark Sanford, there is the obvious mistreatment and disrespect of his family to consider. If he is anything more than a sociopath, he is likely troubled by guilt and regret over his behavior, even if he feels he made the right decision for himself. His undeniable error of judgment in leaving without notice or explanation, and the resulting pain he caused his family, however, should not allow people to cast Sanford among the villainous characters of political sex scandal.
Bill Clinton, as President, had oral sex with an intern 27 years his junior. After the story broke, he and his team attempted to slander Monica Lewinsky as a stalker and lunatic. Larry Craig, a former Senator from Idaho, was caught soliciting sex with a man in an airport bathroom, while making a career out of gay-bashing. John Edwards recorded sex tapes with his mistress at the same time his wife was struggling against life-threatening cancer, and Eliot Spitzer was disgraced as New York governor for spending thousands of dollars a week on prostitutes.
Comedian Bill Maher recently asked why if voters are willing to forgive Mark Sanford, aren't they willing to forgive Anthony Weiner? The unfortunately named Congressman sent pictures of his penis to multiple women across the Internet. Sanford took a major risk in the name of love. He put his career, marriage, and reputation on the line, and was willing to sacrifice all of it, to adhere to the demands of his soul.
Toni Morrison writes that people don't fall in love, as much as they are raised into love. Anyone who has had the experience knows there is hardly any choice involved, and those that ignore the dictates of the heart will feel tremendous pain, bitterness, and self-hatred.
Sanford's display of romantic bravery that rivals the depiction of the mysterious directive in tragedies and epics is rare in politics. In fact, it is rare in American culture where more and more people prefer to play it safe. Hooking up, online dating, and resistance to the traditional date are simply ways of disguising a guardedness that betrays a fear of love. Real love will make people behave like Sanford, and that is frightening. As essayist Cristina Nehring points out, American culture offers the twin gods of "meaningless sex" and "meaningless marriage" in order to quiet such fear.
Clinton, Spitzer, and Craig look like men who abused their power, confirming the clichés of manipulation and exploitation that follow politicians around like an offensive body odor. Weiner was weird and juvenile. Sanford pursued, albeit in an irresponsible way, the universal dream of living with a soul mate.
I'm not qualified to take a position on whether or not Sanford should have won election based on his policy positions and proposals, but I will endorse the voters for forgiving him for the foibles of his love and lust. It isn't the first time that the American public has forgiven a public official for adultery. Newt Gingrich's tarnished past did not stop him in the Republican presidential primary of 2012, and Clinton's sex scandal hardly receives mention outside predictable jokes at the former President's expense. Because of the emotional details of the Sanford scandal and because of the romantic imperative and heartfelt command he followed, his case is the most important.
Erich Fromm in his classic book, The Art of Loving, writes that we must "become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering." He goes on to write that, "In spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power—almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving."
Sanford's admittedly reckless actions were taken to learn the art of loving. He made some mistakes, committed some misdeeds, but ultimately emerged as a man who did not prioritize success, prestige, money, and power over love—quite the opposite. For that he is deserving of our empathy.