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The Mark Sanford affair: Its naked political impact

June 24, 2009 |  3:37 pm

Family

Oh Sergei, don't tell me you've lost another submarine?

What a relief for the GOP! It turns out that South Carolina's incumbent Republican Gov. Mark Sanford wasn't doing something loopy like hiking naked on the Appalachian Trail.

During the recent unexplained disappearance from his official job and from his wife and four sons on Father's Day, Sanford was simply off on another continent in South America with his married Argentinian lover, a relationship he says began as a "dear, dear friend" years ago and ended up, thanks to that common villain e-mail, in something internationally more during the last year.

Well, then, fine. He's only lost the naked hiker vote. And most married women. And non-philandering churchgoing voters.

On a slow summer news day when the country's attention should have been focused on the Oscars expanding its Best Picture category from five to 10 nominees and the U.S. upsetting Spain in some soccer game, the Sanford news rocked the Republican Party, which had otherwise been enjoying so much powerful good news recently with President Obama's popularity plateauing around 60% and about 1 in 4 Americans calling themselves Republican.

Anytime these days a Republican gets publicly expressed sympathy from Democrats, you know it's not only insincere, it's big trouble.

So, in other words, according to modern American political tradition, Sanford has joined the rapidly expanding bipartisan male club of big names to publicly admit embarrassing romantic affairs outside their marriage -- Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich, House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston, David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, Edward Kennedy, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa, John Edwards and most recently another John named Ensign.

And before them, we now know, JFK and Ike and FDR and who knows who all. (And since then, Rep. Mark Foley, who wasn't married, but that's another story.)

At least Ensign and Sanford didn't make their wives stand beside their man during the video confessions. (See video below) Or maybe, hopefully, the wives told them what they could do with that invite.

Next to come will be examinations of Sanford's expense accounts to see if he spent public money on private tryst travel. And whether those overseas trade missions really were about stimulating state business or something else. And, of course, tabloid....

...photos of his special South American friend, presumably female.

We'll now see familiar film clips of Sanford's most pious pleas for morality and his older calls for Clinton to resign over his misleading testimony about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. And Sanford's more recent refusal of Obama's stimulus funds.

We won't see the private pain of these affairs; nor should we. We only got hints of it through Elizabeth Edwards' recent book tour when that terminally ill wife, having abetted the ongoing secrecy of the affair during her husband's Democratic presidential campaign, described the relationship with her husband as "complicated."

Sanford acknowledged that any possible forgiveness and marital repair, not to mention his relationship with four sons, will take a long time.

The Sanford family is said to have known of his vow violations for months, which would account for Jenny Sanford reportedly saying recently she didn't know where her husband was and didn't care. Not a good sign for Sunday dinner.

Not to mention repairs with Sanford's trusting gubernatorial staff who parroted to the media the untruths the governor fed them about his recent whereabouts. Probably not a lot of office picnics and sack races on the schedule for that betrayed team during the remaining 18 months of Sanford's term.

Sanford says he's resigning chairmanship of the Republican Governors Assn., which will prevent some news conference chuckles but won't change the course of GOP history. No word on his resignation as governor, which means he'll probably try to stay.

What Sanford's troubles will do -- and watch this politically -- is elevate Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to RGA chairman. Barbour is a Southerner in an increasingly Southern party, a successful state chief executive, a wealthy and savvy former political/legal consultant and like George H. W. Bush, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee with longstanding political and financial ties, friendships and owsies all over the country.

The name of Sanford, a former House member who lived up to his own self-imposed three-term limit, was tossed around loosely like Ensign's as a possible contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. But that fiction actually says more about his party's ongoing national disarray and lack of obvious leaders than about the realistic chances of a somewhat odd-duck states righter to lead the party of Lincoln someday.

Judging by Clinton and Gingrich's long image rehabs, such affairs may be political IEDs at the time but in a modern America where one or two private illicit affairs are known to occur every year, they can amazingly lead to successful and lucrative post-political careers speaking and writing and whatever else they do now out of the spotlight.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Governor's Office

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