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Love Actually

In defense of Mark Sanford.

"I never figured Sanford for anything like this," mused one of the governor’s constituents in The New York Times this week. Mark Sanford’s friends are aghast. His neighbors shake their heads. His community simply could not see it coming. The Internet is in convulsions: Who would have thought Sanford capable of this?

Give it a rest. The man didn’t commit murder here. He’s in love. Anarchic, hurtful, but seemingly true love. Governor Sanford of South Carolina had what would, under ordinary circumstances, be considered an ideal romantic relationship in the 21st century. Slow to evolve and based on proven mutual friendship and respect, it was eight years in the making. The woman involved, Maria, was not offensively younger than he. She was not his intern, his boss, his student, his financial contributor. He was hardly using her for sex--indeed, he had not spent that much time in her company, as they lived on different continents. Nor was he deceiving her: He told her his family obligations, his pleasures, his fears. She even told him of the men trying to seduce her. In fact, they told each other so much (and slept with each other so little) that they left a huge paper trail--or cyber trail, rather--for their enemies to scrutinize. More hedonistic pairs leave far less ample evidence for their sins. But Mark and Maria confided in each other constantly. They supported each other tenderly ("I want to help [one of your sons] with film guys that might help his career ...”) They forgave each other’s differences--Maria’s insecurity ("you do not need a therapist to tell you who you are”) and the governor’s prudishness ("that would be going into sexual details,” he smiles, "...and unlike you, I would never do that!”).

But as it happens, the relationship had extremely bad timing. It took place almost 20 years into Mark Sanford’s marriage. It caused him to risk his relationship to four sons, to betray his canny, classy, and beautiful wife, to abdicate his responsibility to the state, and to take at least one government-paid trip for private pleasure. He might, nonetheless, have limited the damage in the style of his colleagues in Washington (think David Vitter; think John Ensign) had he been willing to disown Maria once he was discovered, had he been willing to toss her out like an ex-smoker tosses out his cigarette pack once he quits the habit: piously, proudly, unfeelingly, with not a thought for the projectile at the base of the trash bin. But the governor of South Carolina was not willing to do this: Instead, he told a marveling press corps how important and beautiful the relationship was; how he’d flown to Argentina to discuss its fate and had spent the last five days weeping. He apologized not only for hurting his wife but--get this!--for hurting his mistress. He apologized to the Other Woman.

For all the feminist enlightenment of our era, we have never succeeded in humanizing the Other Woman. Always, she is assumed to be shallow. Always, she is assumed to be opportunistic. Cold. Manipulative. Unworthy of human empathy. But there are deep-feeling and idealistic mistresses in the same way that there are pragmatic and cynical spouses. (Just imagine: Some of those people reading 10 Ways to Marry a Millionaire actually succeed.)

If Sanford is being lampooned with such cruelty on the web and on the airwaves today, it is not because he had an affair so much as because he had an unusually soulful, caring, and (for all the earthquakes it caused) oddly high-minded affair that he refused to disavow in the manner of his colder colleagues. It is for this reason that his amorous words are being reprinted on blogs across the country and followed by "Ew! Unsubscribe!” or preceded by "You may find yourself vomiting spontaneously.”

We inhabit a strange society, indeed, when love (albeit misallocated love, excessive love) seems to elicit, of all crimes, the most vocal and violent repugnance. As soldiers and economies continue to fall around the globe, citizens at home rise to denounce ... a love relationship gone awry. A love affair that is, in many ways, a dozen times nobler than its Washington counterparts, more altruistic than the carnal flings that get pardoned every week, and greater-souled than the flirtations (with power) of many of its sneering, small-minded critics.

Sometime last year, Maria wrote Mark how happy she was to love him--not because she imagined she could keep him forever but because she learned through their bond that she could love; that it was possible for her to feel at once enchanted and intimately familiar with a man. Let us hope she can keep this optimism, even after five days of tears. Let us hope that Mark and his graceful wife (who to her credit, both initiated a trial separation, and allowed him to explain his affair to the world alone, without holding his hand as though she was a babysitter who had reclaimed her charge) can put things together again in a new, imaginative, and electric way.

Did Sanford condemn himself by condemning, years ago, the errant Bill Clinton? "He lied under a different oath, and that’s the oath to his wife,” the governor told CNN during the Monica Lewinski affair, "So it’s got to be taken very, very seriously.”

Let’s not forget his hypocrisy here. But at the same time, let us distrust, a little, our moral rigidities and place our faith instead in our human flexibilities, our good will, our capacity for forgiveness, tenderness, and reconstruction. It behooves us to admit that most of us are virtuous most of the time not only out of high principles but also out of small opportunity, or (worse?) small ardor. For all the fall-out of real passion--and there is always fall-out--it is better to have loved and erred than never to have loved at all.

Cristina Nehring is the author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century. Her essays appear in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Conde Nast Traveler, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the NYTBR. She lives in Paris with her infant daughter.