Mark Sanford is the former governor of South Carolina who infamously disappeared for several days in 2009 to visit his Argentine lover in Buenos Aires; his befuddled staffers were left to proffer a number of excuses for his sudden absence, most memorably that he’d spontaneously decided to “hike the Appalachian trail.”
At the time, Sanford was in the early stages of planning a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and would likely have stood a decent chance of besting Mitt Romney. The GOP’s Southern powerbrokers were without an obvious candidate to coalesce around, and it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where Sanford filled that void. Any such hopes were dashed, however, when Sanford convened a tearful press conference upon his eventual return to South Carolina and revealed that he had “spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina” visiting his lover and “trying to get [his] heart right.”
Sanford was widely ridiculed; his wife filed for divorce, he was censured by the state legislature, and after leaving office, he retreated to his family’s plantation where he went into seclusion. An unschooled observer of American politics might have assumed that his prospects for future elected office had been irrevocably dimmed.
But he’s back, naturally, and is seen as the leading contender in a special election to be held later this month to fill a vacant U.S. House seat. A New York magazine piece from last week chronicled Sanford’s rebirth, highlighting his newfound penchant for mixing New Age-y, self-help preachifying with an espousal of the typical “Small Government” conservative agenda.
The New York journalist observed that at one campaign event, Sanford framed his answers to voters’ questions around his own past woes:
“Unless you’ve felt pain at some level of life, whether it’s self-imposed or otherwise, I don’t think you have the same level of empathy for people who have gone through some level of suffering,” Sanford said. “I empathize with people at a level that I never did before in part because of some pain in my own life.
At first blush, this seems a laudable admission on Sanford’s part; most anyone, politician or otherwise, would do well to have a healthy dose of empathy for fellow humans, and this trait is especially desirable for those who wield political power. But then came this revelation:
When I asked Sanford how that new empathy had changed his views on public policy — whether it had made him, for instance, more inclined to support public-assistance programs he’s long denounced as unnecessary — he said it had not. “Convictions are convictions,” he explained. His empathy is for other public figures recovering from sex scandals and personal humiliations. “I used to open the paper and think, How did this person do that? Now it’s all, But by the grace of God go I.”
So after years of turmoil and an intensive personal “journey,” Sanford’s main insight is that political elites who experience public shame warrant his empathy. His political “convictions,” however, remain quite unchanged. Yet, as the old axiom goes, “the personal is political,” and Sanford’s crisis appears to have merely reinforced the values he already held to be true — that the privileged class deserves copious deference for their failings, while the underclass hardly even merit consideration.