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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Final Thoughts on the Sanford Saga

Don’t know about you, readers, but I’m ready to quickly forget about Mark Sanford for a good long while and leave him to whatever reckoning he faces with his family and the people of South Carolina. I’d just as soon not see elaborate exposure of his personal emails, or minute-by-minute scrutiny of how he spent his time on state-paid trade missions to Argentina.
But there are a couple of residual points on the general subject of media coverage of politics that do need to be addressed for future reference.
1) Is the vast attention being paid to the Sanford Saga a flashing warning sign about media or public obsession with the sex lives of politicians, and/or about the spread of a “celebrity gossip” culture into politics?
2) Does the exposure of Sanford show that politicians no longer have any expectation of privacy?
These are questions that we have been hearing at least since the “Monkey Business” scandal derailed Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign, and they are both quite legitimate. But if you think about it even briefly, the Sanford Saga doesn’t really fit the troubling template of a salacious public and its media hounds devouring someone’s private life.
First of all, the Sanford story was big-time national news long before it had anything to do with sex. Sure, there was private speculation that something a bit out of line with Sanford’s self-proclaimed “family values” convictions might be going on, and for all I know, some of the Republican politicians in South Carolina who made a big issue of Sanford’s disappearance had reason to think that ol’ debbil Lust was lurking in the background. But for most of us, and in virtually all the public discussion of Sanford’s vanishing act, sex didn’t enter the picture until the governor raised it himself in yesterday’s press conference. Maybe it’s troubling that the explanation Sanford’s staff originally put out–that he chose to spend Father’s Day weekend wandering alone on the Appalachian Trail with no means of communication with the outside world–seemed strange enough to make it a “story” (though again, if his Lieutenant Governor, a fellow Republican if not exactly a friend, hadn’t gone on national television to complain about it, I don’t know how big a “story” it would have been). But this isn’t about any national sex mania.
Second of all, there are certain steps any public official needs to take to maintain an “expectation of privacy.” The very first is to ensure that one’s private life does not interfere with the performance of public duties. I have a very hard time believing that Mark Sanford could not have maintained a communications link with his office without disclosing where he was and what he was doing with whom. I am sure he had been issued what is sometimes jokingly called an “Armageddon Pager” that is used to alert a public official–especially a chief executive–of an emergency. He must have decided to leave it at home; otherwise, his staff would have been able to credibly say: “We don’t know where he is, but we know how to reach him if the need arises.” That would have cut off the whole “who’s in charge?” line of inquiry at the knees. To put it another way, the expectation of privacy for governors (or for that matter, presidents) does not include being unavailable to do your job–not for an hour, much less for five or six days. That’s just part of the job description, and it’s nothing new.
Maybe psychologists can explain why Mark Sanford pursued a course of action almost perfectly designed to draw attention to the behavior he was supposedly trying so hard to hide–or why, in the midst of an illicit affair, or a Friendship With Privileges, or whatever it was, he worked so hard to make himself a national political figure and a putative presidential candidate (sort of a slow-motion equivalent of Gary Hart’s “go ahead and follow me” taunt to reporters asking if he ever fooled around).
But in writing a couple of posts on the Sanford Saga, I can honestly say I don’t feel like I’ve been part of some panting media pack chasing the latest sex story, or violating the governor’s privacy. I personally wish it had turned out that he was just an anti-social or stressed-out man who asked his family for the Father’s Day gift of some peaceful time alone. But he chose to paint the big bullseye on his back, and make it bigger by a career-long habit of moralizing about other people’s behavior (not to mention trying to deny women and gays/lesbians any privacy rights). So let’s forget about the man with a clean conscience.

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