As Governor Sanford’s former constituent in South Carolina, I understand how angry residents feel. But like Spitzer in New York, hounding him out of office now would prompt resignation remorse later. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
“Will you resign the governorship?” The question hung in the air as South Carolina’s Mark Sanford departed his press conference. It was the only inquiry left unanswered in the 18-minute televised confessional. It remains unanswered—possibly even to the governor himself—but Sanford should not resign.
As a former constituent of Sanford’s in Charleston, I can appreciate the shockwaves going through homes all over the Palmetto State today. He was widely considered one of the good guys in politics: thoughtful, honest and unassuming—even if you disagreed with him on policy. He slept in his congressional office to save money, brought a pig into the state legislature to highlight pork-barrel spending, fought for deficit reduction and enjoyed approval ratings above 70 percent. As it was in New York when Eliot Spitzer’s infidelities were exposed, the breaking news felt close to a moral impossibility, contrary to everything we thought we knew about the character of a once-popular chief executive. A smart and principled man behaved in ways that were neither smart nor principled.
Soliciting prostitution is illegal; adultery is immoral. Spitzer was felled by lust; Sanford evidently by love.
Hypocrisy is the unforgivable sin in politics. In Spitzer’s case, the hard-driving prosecutor with a zero-tolerance policy for human frailty set himself up as a political piñata. He’d advocated tough new laws against soliciting prostitutes and then done the same thing himself. He’d utilized money-laundering techniques that he had prosecuted. He’d made enough enemies during his short time in office that few tears were shed when he resigned.
But in South Carolina, there is genuine sadness mixed with the shock and disappointment. Sanford had been viewed with pride as a leading Republican presidential primary candidate in 2012—completing the half-century evolution from Strom Thurmond to Fritz Hollings to Sanford. Throughout his career, his wife Jenny had been a steadfast political partner and his love for his four boys remains palpable. But despite knee-jerk anti-Southern assumptions, Sanford had never subscribed to the Moral Majority or discrimination coded under the term “family values.” He was a man of faith, but did not use it as a political banner or polarizing weapon. A staunch fiscal conservative—which led to most of his fights with the free-spending state legislature—he did not climb on the soapbox of social conservatism. Instead, he advanced the idea of the big tent.
After Spitzer’s resignation, chaos in the New York state legislature has left many citizens feeling that the inmates are in charge of the asylum—a condition exacerbated by the fact that only one of the state’s four statewide elected officials in Albany were actually put into office by the voters less than three years ago. Unexpectedly, some folks in the Empire State now have resignation remorse. Hounding Sanford out of office in this moment of maximum pain and political damage could have a similar effect in South Carolina.
There’s an additional caution: Soliciting prostitution is illegal; adultery is immoral. Spitzer was felled by lust; Sanford evidently by love. All this is not by way of excusing, but explaining, Sanford’s combustible midlife crisis and epic lapse in judgment. For all the heated “Bill Clinton must resign” impulses after the then-mind-blowing Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, most Americans now see that would have been a mistake in terms of the Constitution and the country.
To his credit, Sanford did not indulge in an extended spin after getting caught—he was painfully honest in public. And as we have seen from Jenny Sanford’s subsequent eloquent letter to the press, no one ever really knows what goes on in a relationship except the two people in it.
Governor Sanford’s presidential aspirations are over. He must have known this in his heart weeks ago. You cannot take on principled fights against powerful interests if you are vulnerable in your private life. He has appropriately resigned the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, citing the need to spend all his time healing the wound he has caused in his family and his state. But as with Clinton post-impeachment, there is still some good he can do as a duly-elected chief executive. He has done too much good in his career for it to end here.
And maybe we all have to grow up as well. Our political leaders are just people, as flawed and damaged as we all are, often more so.They should hold themselves to a higher standard and voters should hold them accountable—but if we expect perfection, we’re just asking to be lied to.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.