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.