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Mark Sanford’s Real Crime

I met Mark Sanford only once, at a fundraiser that somebody asked me to go to, back when I was more right-leaning. I liked him at the time. I remember being struck by how much shorter he was than I thought he would be, and how much tanner – alarmingly so; he was almost orange.

The speech he gave was unsurprisingly anodyne and moderate – these were the Bush years, not the roaring ’90s or the raging ’10s, and he was talking to a bunch of New Yorkers – and full of references to the likes of Tom Friedman. But that is, authentically, part of what Sanford was always about – he’s more Bill Weld than Jim DeMint.

I liked him, but I wasn’t distinctly impressed with him. And then he went hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

After that, I liked him better.

Your typical philandering politician is pretty much just a colossal jerk, someone with an absurdly swollen sense of entitlement. Or they are coldly calculating, trading up from the women who saw them through the early years of their career to a more attractive model – physically or politically and financially – as their careers mature. It’s difficult to be sympathetic to either model, but voters have shown themselves to be quite adroit at forgiving these kinds of sins when their political allegiance demands it.

Sanford’s affair didn’t fit either model. His wife was an heiress and a genuine political talent; he wasn’t looking to trade up. And this wasn’t a casual dalliance. This was, in some fashion or other, a genuine love affair. And a crazy one to indulge in if he really cared about his career.

I say “in some fashion or other” because, of course, it’s hard not to assume that part of what was going on was a desire to sabotage his own political career – but it’s nonetheless significant that the way he chose to sabotage it was to fall deeply in love with somebody. At a minimum, that tells me something about his capacity for feeling that emotion.

And that, I think, was his gravest crime, politically speaking. We are willing to forgive our politicians for a multitude of private sins, because really what we care about is that we come first. They can treat their spouses and children abominably if we know that at the end of the day all they really care about is winning. Because to win they have to do what we want. Or at least convince us that they have.

But a man who might throw it all away because he’s convinced he’s finally found his soul mate? That doesn’t sound like an alpha dog people are going to want to follow slavishly. Nor does it sound like somebody ruthlessly determined to stay on the right side of his constituents. It sounds like somebody who can be overcome by emotion. It sounds almost . . . human.

Sanford Mark II seems like his got his fair share of politician’s myopia about what constitute normal human relations – asking his ex-wife to run his comeback campaign? Really? And I have moved considerably to the left since the days when I could plausibly have been found at a Sanford fundraiser. But at the end of the day, I would rather be governed by humans than by some other species. And so I still have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Appalachian Trail.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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