Mark Sanford won a special election for Congress in South Carolina this week after many pundits and politicians believed his career was over due to his irresponsible actions as governor. He left the state for six days to win the affection of an Argentinian journalist with whom he had fallen in love and exchanged emails for over a year. He left his wife and risked his political career in making the trip, and said that he did so, because “he could die knowing that he found his soul mate.” Sanford and the journalist are currently engaged.
I am not sure if it is politically good that Sanford now has a seat in Congress. I don’t really care. Culturally, however, it is very good.
American culture needs examples of romantic bravery and, instead of punishing those who risk everything for love, we should respond with empathy and even measured respect.
I make this argument in my new essay for The Atlantic – “Mark Sanford, Romantic Hero.” It is sad and unfortunate that Sanford hurt his wife and children, but those who understand and appreciate the power of love realize that it is a mysterious and frightening directive. It can inspire beauty, cruelty, and a combination of both. As the Rev. Al Green sings, “Love and happiness / It’ll make you do right / Make you do wrong.”
In the essay, I contextualize the Sanford affair by placing it smack dab in the middle of an American culture committed to denying the power of love – “Sanford’s display of romantic bravery that rivals the depiction of the mysterious directive in tragedies and epics is rare in politics. In fact, it is rare in American culture where more and more people prefer to play it safe. Hooking up, online dating, and resistance to the traditional date are simply ways of disguising a guardedness that betrays a fear of love. Real love will make people behave like Sanford, and that is frightening. As essayist Cristina Nehring points out, American culture offers the twin gods of ‘meaningless sex’ and ‘meaningless marriage’ in order to quiet such fear.”
Life is a complicated affair and those who live it on the emotional edges run the risk of creating messy and hurtful situations. To look at the general response to the Sanford affair, however – and the comment section of my article gives a good illustration – is to believe that everyone has lives that are neat, clean, and never marked by the foibles of love and lust. Human affection and intimacy are good, they have value in themselves, and they deserve honor and respect. Sometimes, they win the day, and in the process, leave a path of wreckage, but that wreckage is easier to manage than the quiet death of ignoring the dictates of the heart and the truth of the imagination.
Read the entire essay to learn how I separate Sanford from Clinton, Craig, Spitzer, and other public officials disgraced by sex scandal, and to learn how I would cast the romantic comedy inspired by Sanford’s story.