Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mark Sanford, poster boy for the party of second chances?

The NY Times magazine has a feature story up on Mark Sanford, former governor of South Carolina, now member of the House of Representatives. Sanford, of course, infamously hiked the Appalachian Trail all the way to his mistress's house in Argentina, killing his marriage and, it seemed at the time, his political career. The utter ridiculousness of how Sanford's indiscretion came to light seemed to make the outcome of the story inevitable. The man was finished, at least as far as politics was concerned.

But a funny thing happened on the way to nowhere. Sanford regrouped, stepped back, and started rebuilding. Read the article and judge for yourself whether you think he is genuinely repentant or playing a political angle. Time will tell.

Another famously fallen political figure, my old boss Chuck Colson, is mentioned in the article. When I started working for him more than twenty years after Watergate, I heard from several still skeptical friends and relatives who just were not buying the whole "born again" thing. Time was never enough to tell them anything about Colson they didn't already believe to be true. Opinions are like that, and I guess we're all entitled to one.

A few thoughts on Sanford and the NY Times article.

Thought #1: I'm not surprised that Sanford is resurrecting his political career or the aplomb with which he handled the less than enthusiastic members of his constituency in the article. Nor am I surprised at the comments in the article about current South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. I've had the opportunity to meet them both, briefly, in the same context. While serving as an officer in a community organization, I twice went to the governor's office to attend the signing of an annual proclamation. The first time, Sanford was in the State House. He welcomed our group into his private office, a room just beyond the larger and more public office, where he greeted each of us personally, chatted comfortably, asked questions and showed interest in the reason for our visit, posed for pictures with us, then sat at his desk to sign the proclamation, handing the official pen to the eldest representative of our group. A year later, Nikki Haley kept us waiting in the hallway where she eventually swept out to cheerfully but hurriedly greet us, sign the proclamation with a borrowed pen while leaning on her secretary's desk, and seemed like she would have dashed off without any pictures had not a bold member of the group asked her to pause. I thought then, and I thought again now reading this article, that Sanford possesses a natural ease and charm that makes him a great campaigner, while Haley, whatever other good traits she may have, simply lacks that social grace.

Thought #2: Perhaps a campaign victory rally is not the best place to meet your boyfriend's child from a prior marriage for the first time. This might be particularly true when the prior marriage imploded very publicly, when you were the very public cause of that implosion, and when the child involved was still a child but old enough to know exactly what was happening.

Thought #3: A friend asked me not long ago why it was that Republicans seem to be so unforgiving of their politicians who have affairs. We talked at the time about how the Republican party has fashioned itself as a party of family values so marital failures seem to cut right at the heart of what we say we're about. As I read this article though, it occurred to me that it's deeper than just that. Reflecting on Sanford's early political career, the writer mentions that a younger Sanford once "castigated" another politician who'd had an affair. When one preaches family values, it is perhaps easy to use the failure of an opponent's family as a political edge. But having done so, a later indiscretion of one's own seems like a much more glaring act of hypocrisy.

Thought #4: As someone who once had to learn how to write in Chuck Colson's 'voice,' the quote from the phone call with Sanford sounds completely wrong in its wording but very true in its sentiment. Chuck was a big believer in using his story to reach out to others who were experiencing a spectacular fall from grace of their own making and encouraging them to look to God and not lose hope. But he was not a big believer in grammatically incorrect phrases like you got to and slang like 'cause.

Thought #5: Chapur does herself and Sanford a good turn by coming across in the article as humble, gracious, and cognizant of having done wrong.

Thought #6: If you're interested, here is a post I wrote for the BreakPoint blog back in 2009 when news of Sanford's affair first broke. Even those of us who worked and wrote for Colson could scarcely imagine back then that the mess Sanford had made of his political career would be anything less than permanent.

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