Watching Governor Sanford’s press conference and reading his wife’s statement were painful reminders that infidelity, far from being a victimless act, can do great damage — to spouses and to children, to friends and colleagues, and (in the case of Sanford) to a community of believers. The collateral human damage is enormous, and the wounds never fully heal.
Most people without a political axe to grind will have sympathy for Sanford’s family above all, and even some sympathy for him. By most accounts Sanford is an otherwise decent man whose public and private worlds are now crashing down all around him. What is hard to know, both for those close to him and for the millions of people who don’t know him but, because of television, have become spectators in this drama, is what the appropriate attitude toward Sanford should be. How do we balance an attitude of forgiveness with accountability? And in this case, when a political figure is involved, how important of an issue should adultery be?
Some people argue it should matter hardly at all. FDR and JFK had affairs, they say, and it did not impede their ability to fulfill their public duties. Private lives should be just that, private; and only when there is an obvious effect on how people do their jobs should they matter. “I don’t feel that a wrong step along the way should automatically result in exile,” one person wrote me after news of the affair broke. Human beings are cracked vessels, he argued; we need to take that into account. Others say in response that if a person breaks a marital vow, it is undeniably a sign of one’s character and trustworthiness — and character and trustworthiness matter in public officials. It’s not all that matters, but it should be taken into account. America is not as latitudinarian as Europe on such matters, and that’s a good thing.
In the end, there is no single template that applies. It depends so much on facts and circumstances. Is the affair on-going or did it end long ago? Was it a one-time thing or part of a pattern? Is the contrition genuine or an appeal for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”? Did the affair involve someone over whom the person had power and authority? Was there other wrongdoing as well (for example, was public money spent on matters related to the liaison)? Did the relationship infringe on the person’s public duties? Was the affair particularly reckless (for example, was it on-going while running for high public office, as was the case with John Edwards)? Is what we are talking about an aberration, a blot on an otherwise impressive person’s life — or part of a pattern of irresponsible actions by a self-indulgent cad?
All of these things, and more, need to be taken into account in order to render a fair-minded judgment on such a matter. So often in these cases, much of this kind of information is impossible for most of us to obtain, especially when it comes to the human heart (often we cannot accurately discern our own motivations, let alone the motivations of another). And even if we did have that information, our political culture — which seems to relish watching public people’s lives crash and burn — is not one that would take them into account. Most of us can come up with scenarios in which we think an affair by a public official should disqualify him from high public office; and most of us can come up with a scenario where the indiscretion, while wrong, should not necessarily bar that person from future public life (the discovery of an affair committed years before and ended, the marriage has been repaired, and the person has clearly changed his ways). Like most issues in life, what we are talking about lies on a continuum, and what it requires of us is prudence and practical wisdom.
What also complicates this whole picture are our own partisan leanings. In a case like this, involving a public figure, we tend to judge those holding political views similar to ours more leniently than those whose political views are different from ours.
In the case of Mark Sanford, I suspect he will be an ex-governor before long. His indiscretion bled into his public life. For a governor to disappear for days at a time without being in contact with his office compounds the recklessness of the affair itself. This breach, while not massive, was real. In addition, lies were told to the public and the media in order to cover up his actions. South Carolinians are not New Yorkers.
The whole thing is sad and discouraging, and it will deepen the public’s cynicism about politicians. For a person like Sanford, it involves not just breaking a marital vow. He is also a person with a title, Governor; and when you run for public office, certain responsibilities accrue, whether you want them or not. No one assumes that if an affair of a high public official is discovered, a “zone of privacy” will protect him. One may think it unfair and unreasonable, but it is understood to be part of the rules of the game, the price for the power. Professional sports leagues and athletes understand this concept as well; the NFL has a personal conduct code that allows the Commissioner to suspend players for off-field behavior in order to preserve the league’s public image. They accept that they are invested with a public trust and their actions have public consequences.
Whatever happens to Sanford, the revelation of this incident confirms Chesteron’s aphorism that original sin is the one empirically provable Christian doctrine. There is another one, less provable but no less important, and it has to do with grace and forgiveness. We are all in need of them. That is probably worth our keeping in mind not only when it comes to this issue but to others as well. As a rule, we are pretty quick to take delight in the failures of others, to jump on those who have stumbled and fallen. There should be a price for failure, and there should be a chance for redemption.
I do hope the Sanford family finds some measure of grace and forgiveness as it undergoes an excruciating personal journey. We’ll forget about this episode soon enough. They unfortunately can’t, and they unfortunately won’t.