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Sanford affair renews questions about politicians and infidelity

Experts and observers say it's no surprise so many powerful men have risked it all for love or sex. But what is it about South Carolina?

June 27, 2009|Faye Fiore

WASHINGTON — If one question rises as yet another politician falls from the love nest and lands with a splat, it's this: What the heck was he thinking?

Elizabeth Edwards has scarcely finished her book tour of scorn. Eliot Spitzer is energetically engineering his comeback from shame. And there goes South Carolina's governor, Mark Sanford, another of the political high and mighty, hurling himself into a pit of adulterous disgrace. This time it was a South American tryst with a lover reportedly named Maria.

"Do they think they're invisible?" mused Dick Harpootlian, former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman and a longtime Sanford adversary.

Experts have all kinds of theories about why otherwise intelligent men -- and it's almost always men -- behave so recklessly. Sex and power are inextricably intertwined, as Henry Kissinger famously noted, and some politicians have a hard time reining in the urge for either.

"If you're one of these Master of the Universe kind of guys, you get to a place where you feel that the rules don't apply to you," said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist who specializes in relationships.

Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist, even coined a term -- the "Type T personality" -- to describe politicians' predilection for philandering. The "T" stands for thrill-seeker, which describes the kind of person drawn to a career that, by its nature, requires a willingness to step out of ordinary life and take risks.

"It's not a 9-to-5 job," said Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Assn. who has extensively studied politicians' behavior. "It has very high levels of uncertainty, variety, novelty, challenge, unpredictability -- and therefore it attracts a certain kind of person."

The positive side of that risk-taking is a willingness to expose oneself to that most public of examinations: an election campaign. The downside, Farley said, is relenting to personal urges, like drugs, alcohol or an extramarital dalliance.

"It's almost built into their personalities," he said of many officeholders. "Put it together with the opportunities they have, and we should not be shocked when we see it happening."

Still, the scrutiny of elected officials is harsher today than it was even when Bill Clinton was president. In an age when lawmakers tweet their State of the Union critiques in real time and post their every thought on Facebook, Sanford shook his security detail, turned off his cellphone for days and disappeared.

Like nobody would notice?

"This is not Strom Thurmond fathering an African American daughter out of wedlock in the '40s and keeping it a secret," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist with long experience in South Carolina and national politics. "That is just not possible anymore."

Sanford's home state offers abundant evidence of what happens to public figures who stray. Televangelist Jim Bakker begged for forgiveness in South Carolina after getting caught in an adulterous affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn. Donna Rice, the woman who cost Gary Hart his shot at the presidency, was from a little town just outside of Columbia, the capital. So was Franklin Roosevelt's mistress. (He is said to have used an elevator to sneak into her home in Aiken.)

There are plenty of current examples, including former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards committing adultery with his videographer in a scandal that his wife, Elizabeth, explored in a much-publicized memoir, and Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada cheating with a campaign aide who was on the payroll. (Edwards is a South Carolina native, which does make you wonder about the place.)

Even as the tabloids exploded with the news of those two wayward politicians, Sanford took chances that could only be called outlandish, winging his way to Argentina, leaving his wife and four sons alone on Father's Day and forcing his befuddled staff to try to determine his whereabouts.

Why the risk? "It's hard to understand this if you have not been in passionate love, and it's particularly intense when it's star-crossed," Schwartz said. "You are pumping adrenaline, testosterone and dopamine -- it's a drug cocktail; you are intoxicated. And you know what kind of decision we make when we are intoxicated."

Democratic strategist Paul Begala was a close aide to former President Clinton, who made tabloid headlines for keeping company with Gennifer Flowers even before his impeachment for lying about an affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. Begala thinks that deceit is a part of human nature and that we probably ought to get used to it.

"As long as we keep electing people to public office, we're going to keep getting flawed people," Begala said. "One of my favorite songs about this kind of thing is 'The Most Unoriginal Sin.' That's what this is. It's not that complicated."

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faye.fiore@latimes.com

Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Mark Z. Barabak, Geraldine Baum and Cathleen Decker contributed to this report.

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