Matt Bai: Mark Sanford’s oversharing problem

September 18, 2014
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If you missed Mark Sanford’s tortured, meandering Facebook post about his various relationship and family troubles last weekend, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The Republican Party’s Lord Byron apparently thought better of it and decided to take the post down.

Maybe Sanford’s sons impressed upon him that he had become the single most embarrassing parent in America. Or maybe Sanford suddenly realized that he wasn’t actually 15 and was under no compulsion to vent his conflicted emotions on social media. (If I knew how to do it, I’d insert a little “unamused” emoji face here.)

Or perhaps Sanford took down the post because it occurred to him, too late, that his digital soliloquy constituted a thoroughly reckless act — not just for himself or for his family, but also for all of Washington, where the last thing any of us really needed was to further erode the boundary between private lives and political careers.

I actually had a lot of sympathy for Sanford back in the summer of 2009, when, as South Carolina’s governor, he pretty much blew up whatever national ambitions he might have had over his love for a woman. As you probably recall, because it was really all too bizarre to forget, the then-married Sanford disappeared from the state for several days, leaving desperate aides to claim he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, when in fact he was 5,000 miles away, wooing the Argentinian love of his life.

When at last he returned to find himself embroiled in a national soap opera, Sanford gave an expansive news conference, in which he appeared about as candid and vulnerable as any politician in memory. The ambitious, socially conservative governor seemed suddenly transformed into a character from a Richard Ford novel; it was like he had stumbled on some truer version of himself in middle age, and all he could do now was to watch the unraveling of his once orderly existence.

I couldn’t help rooting for Sanford then. Go and be happy, I thought. The nation will endure without you.

But, of course, true love can never be enough for a big-time politician, who by definition must have the love of thousands, and so Sanford needed both the midlife crisis and the power. After humiliating his now ex-wife, Jenny, Sanford apparently put off marrying his new fiancee, Maria Belen Chapur, and took back his old congressional seat instead. And last week, feeling pressured by his impatient paramour and facing allegations from his ex that he was unstable and angry, Sanford decided to publicly unburden himself again.

Sanford’s 2,300-word post, in which he essentially broke off his engagement, was in turns sad and farcical — the former because it’s never easy to see a man’s family torn apart, the latter because at times he sounded absurdly self-pitying. Right away, for instance, he noted the dichotomy between historical figures who mistakenly sought “peace at all costs,” on one hand, and Jesus Christ on the other. “In this light,” he went on, “I have struggled in how to respond since being contacted a little more than a week ago regarding yet another lawsuit by a yet new, and third, lawyer retained by my former wife Jenny.”

So let’s see: the Romans … the Nazis … and a third-string divorce lawyer in Charleston. You can see the continuity there.

Sanford told us that his ex-wife questioned his stability as a parent and wanted him to undergo anger-management classes. He said she had accused him of having his fiancee stay overnight while his younger sons were around, which he denied (while adding, nastily, that his ex-wife needed to look in the mirror before leveling that charge).

Responding to her contention that he was drinking around the boys, Sanford wrote, “I did not drink in high school or college and though I do drink now, my consumption is so limited that my friends give me a hard time about it.” (Dude. Maybe get some grown-up friends.)

In the end, though, none of this really mattered much to anyone but Sanford and his immediate family. What did matter — what was, in fact, the single most consequential and misguided contention in Sanford’s entire treatise — went completely overlooked.

I’m talking about the line near the top where he explained his decision to go public. “In as much as you sign my paycheck and you have elected me to represent you in Washington,” he wrote, “I think I owe you my thinking on this personal, but now public matter.”

He doesn’t. Because whether Sanford deserves custody of his boys or needs counseling for his temper, or whether he intends to remarry anytime soon, really has nothing to do with where he stands on bombing in Syria, or Russian incursions into Ukraine, or what to do about immigration or Ebola.

Of course personal issues bleed into politics and into the media, and sometimes politicians have to answer questions about things that ought to be irrelevant, because it’s just not practical to stand on principle and watch your career get swallowed whole. For better or worse, we treat our politicians like celebrity entertainers now. We delve into their family dynamics and speculate on who’s gay or who’s having an affair. Networks hire the unqualified children of presidents and candidates as correspondents, for no other reason than the glamour it supposedly conveys.

But by volunteering at length the most salacious details of his romantic life on social media, Sanford, who has no opponent this year and thus no reason to fear the political fallout from rumors, took all of this a step further. He legitimized any such inquiry for anyone else and set a new standard for disclosing private affairs — which, I guarantee you, others will feel compelled to emulate.

Instead of trying to hold the line against triviality and titillation, Sanford basically said: “All of it is fair game, and all of it matters. And you should expect your politicians to hold nothing back.”

So no one should have been surprised when the next break in the story came not from Us Weekly or “TMZ,” but rather from The New York Times, whose reporter Jim Rutenberg — an excellent political reporter and a friend of mine — reached Chapur in Paris and learned that she was tired of waiting around for a wedding and had heard about Sanford’s post only from the media coverage. What choice does the media have? How are we supposed to declare anything off-limits when the politician himself insists that it isn’t?

Some people will say that this is just the way politics has been going for 30 years, and it was bound to get even more tabloid-y with the advent of Facebook and Twitter and whatever else. Maybe they’re right. But if politicians want the media to exercise even a modicum of restraint and judgment, then they need to do the same. You can’t decry the shallowness of our political culture if your own guy is out there acting like Congress is a WB show.

I don’t know if Sanford owes his ex-wife or his kids an apology. I don’t know if he should grovel to his fiancee, either, and I don’t care. But I’m pretty sure he should apologize to his colleagues in Washington and around the country, some of whom actually want to talk about serious issues of governance, and most of whom are trying to maintain some semblance of privacy.

They didn’t benefit from all that sharing, and neither did the rest of us.

 

 

 

           

 

           

           

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