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Do men see Mark Sanford in the mirror?

Why does there seem seems to be an undercurrent of pity for the adulterous South Carolina governor.

July 02, 2009|Meghan Daum

Last week: What a thrill ride of news!

On June 23, Ed McMahon died, and pontificators everywhere got to work fashioning remarks about the unsung virtues of second banana-dom. On June 25, Farrah Fawcett died, and we were treated to semiotic analysis of her hairstyle and famous red-bathing-suit poster. Then, less than six hours later, news of the death of Michael Jackson briefly caused the Earth to stop turning.

And while all that was going on, California careened toward bankruptcy, election protests in Iran continued to boil into violence and the House passed a potentially historic climate change bill.

Still, a seemingly less compelling (albeit salacious) story managed to cut through the din. I'm talking about the case of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who had not only run off to Argentina to see his mistress, television producer Maria Belen Chapur, but lied about it by telling his family, his staff and, by extension, his constituency that he was hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail.

In a rambling, noticeably unscripted and rather bizarre news conference on June 24, Sanford admitted he'd been unfaithful to his wife. He'd "spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina" (or perhaps he was singing a song from "Evita" and had mangled the lyrics). Meanwhile, a South Carolina newspaper released e-mail correspondence between Sanford and Chapur, which much of the nation seemed to have read by dinner time. In the e-mails, Sanford revealed himself to be a man deeply smitten, if not exactly another Keats. "I love your tan lines" proved among the more quotable phrases.

Despite the humiliation of it all, Sanford's peccadilloes seemed destined to be washed away in the tidal wave of coverage of Jackson's death. From a public relations standpoint, it appeared the governor had received a get-out-of-jail free card from the ghost of the King of Pop. I, for one, thought Sanford would roll off the screen crawl along with McMahon and Fawcett.

I was wrong. A week later, even as the Jackson tributes have given way to rumors of autopsy leaks and conjectures about his children's paternity, we're still hearing about Sanford. Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that he admitted he'd "crossed lines" with other women in the past and that he considered Chapur "his soul mate," but was "trying to fall back in love with his wife." Naturally, such "news," despite being more banal than titillating -- or, more precisely, despite being a banality dressed up as titillation -- was ricocheting around the Internet within minutes.

I'm tempted to assume that the staying power of the Sanford story is simply a function of its prurience. Sex scandals, after all, are much better for ratings than serious -- read "boring" -- events. It's also true that Sanford's lies take this saga beyond the realm of mere sexual impropriety and make it a genuine matter of political concern. (Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who confessed to an affair last week, has endured considerably less news coverage, perhaps because he at least had the good sense to keep his cellphone on during his dalliances.)

So what's left to say about the Sanford saga? Call me crazy, but amid all this finger-wagging, am I detecting just a little bit of -- gasp -- empathy? Is there something about Sanford's puppyish comportment, not to mention the fact that, unlike many adulterous politicos, he seems to be truly in love with his mistress (or at least truly convinced that he is) that's making him less a pariah and more a symbol of the male midlife crisis? For all his duplicity and entitlement, are some Americans -- particularly men -- feeling as much pity as outrage? Consider this small sample:

"This is a story of loneliness," New York Times columnist David Brooks said on "Meet The Press" Sunday. "[These guys] get to middle age, and they realize there's some emotional vacuum in their lives."

It "was about something much deeper than politics," wrote Gary Kamiya in Salon. "It was awful, but it was real. And painful as it is, in the repressed American sexual landscape, reality is better than artifice."

And then there was my dad, who told me the day of the Sanford news conference something to the effect that "you have no idea how easy it is for men to completely lose their minds because of infatuation with women."

No one's excusing Sanford's behavior. But as we slog through another week of the Jackson postmortem-paloooza and wonder at the fact that we're also still hearing about the South Carolina governor's love for certain tan lines, maybe it's worth asking ourselves why. Is it because we're uncategorically appalled? Or is it because maybe, just maybe, there's a tiny bit of Mark Sanford in, if not all men, quite a few of them? And that's more than you can say of Michael Jackson.

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