This is not the Athenian age for U.S. governors. Just in the past five years we’ve seen Jim McGreevey of New Jersey resign because he put his Israeli boyfriend on the state payroll as a homeland security adviser; Eliot Spitzer of New York resign because he had hired a prostitute, had her travel across state lines to entertain him, and attempted to contravene banking regulations; and Rod Blagojevich of Illinois bounced from office on charges that he had sought to sell a Senate seat. What all these cases have in common is that there were real acts of criminality and abuse of office against which there was and is no real defense.
The case of Mark Sanford is different. It’s ludicrous and sad, and it’s always a simultaneously horrifying and riveting spectacle to watch as someone makes a hash of his or her life on television (which is why we watch reality shows). But Sanford’s offense was entirely private. His marital troubles are properly nobody’s business. What made the proceedings a public matter was his incommunicado status for a few days and his staff telling reporters he’d been hiking. But, really, so what? The governor of South Carolina does not possess the nuclear football; surely the world and his state can get along without him for a few days without exploding, as South Carolina, in fact, did.
(Any comparison of Sanford’s affair with Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky hijinks is sillier still. The initial impeachable issue with Clinton was not whether he’d had sex with an intern; it was whether he had sought to buy her silence in front of a grand jury by getting her a job at Revlon. That quid pro quo could not be proved, and the inability to prove it was the reason his impeachment ended up a farce. The idea that the entire Lewinsky matter was “about sex” was the view of his supporters, not his opponents, who argued without success that he had attempted to suborn perjury)
Calls for Sanford’s resignation on the part of serious people like William J. Bennett are a little dumbfounding. Spitzer committed felonies, even though he was not prosecuted for them. McGreevey used public money to give his boyfriend a job for which he was so clearly unqualified that even the boyfriend joked about it–a clear misuse of elected office. Blagojevich…we don’t even need to discuss. Sanford cheated on his wife; someone seems to have hacked into his private email account and gotten hold of his pathetic and embarrassing love missives to Maria in Argentina; his mystery trip became the means whereby a political opponent of his was able to surface the question of Sanford’s private conduct; and his press conference yesterday was the melodramatic climax, every bit as compelling as The Thorn Birds, the gooey potboiler about forbidden love to which Sanford refers in his emails to Maria.
If every public servant with a messy private life must resign his office when the mess is made public, we have created an impossible standard. Remember that Sanford is an elected official. The people of South Carolina voted him in, and absent a serious crime, he should stay in office, otherwise we are moving toward emotional mob rule when officials are to be rousted from their elected posts by a change in feeling toward them.
From McGreevey to Sanford, we are seeing a progression we see nowhere else in America: We are defining deviancy up.