Did Mark Sanford admit to a sin worse than sex?

How you look at things.
June 24 2009 5:29 PM

Something Real

Did Mark Sanford admit to a sin worse than sex?

Also in Slate: John Dickerson on the disturbing glee at Sanford's downfall. Plus: Who is Cubby Culbertson, Sanford's "spiritual giant"? And a guide to politicians' reactions to sex scandals. 

It's the first rule of adultery redemption: minimize the affair.

Bill Clinton did it 11 years ago:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part. … Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—and our God.

That's the ticket: The only woman you love is your wife. The mistress is—er, was—just a "lapse in judgment." As John Edwards put it last year:

In 2006, I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs. I recognized my mistake and I told my wife that I had a liaison with another woman, and I asked for her forgiveness. … I was and am ashamed of my conduct. … But that misconduct took place for a short period in 2006. It ended then.

That's even better. The "error in judgment" is over. Long over. And it was short. Really, really, really short (even if, in fact, it wasn't). You're ashamed of the lapse. It was a betrayal of who you are. It wasn't the real you.

Here's Sen. John Ensign's version, issued a week ago:

Last year I had an affair. I violated the vows of my marriage. It is the worst thing I have ever done in my life. If there was ever anything in my life that I could take back, this would be it. … I know that I have deeply hurt and disappointed my wife Darlene, my children, my family, my friends, my staff and others who believed in me. To all of them, especially my wife, I am deeply sorry. I am truly blessed to have a wife who has forgiven me.

See? You love your wife. She's all you ever cared about. And all those tender moments you spent with what's-her-name? They're the worst thing you ever did. You wish you could take them back.

Sticking to this script is your best shot at salvaging your career and maybe your marriage. That's why adulterous politicians normally talk this way. But Gov. Mark Sanford isn't normal. Here are excerpts from his press conference today:

I've been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a—which started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. … Over this last year it developed into something much more than that. … This person at the time was separated, and we ended up in this incredibly serious conversation about why she ought to get back with her husband. … And we had this incredibly earnest conversation. … And we developed a remarkable friendship over those eight years. And then, as I said, about a year ago, it sparked into something more than that. I have seen her three times since then, during that whole sparking thing. … I spent the last five days, and I was crying in Argentina so I could repeat it when I came back here, in saying, you know, while, indeed, from a heart level, there was something real—it was a place based on the fiduciary relationship I had to the people of South Carolina, based on my boys, based on my wife, based on where I was in life, based on where she was in life, and places I couldn't go and she couldn't go.

Dear, dear friend? Something much more than that? Incredibly earnest conversation? Remarkable friendship? Sparking thing? Something real? Where I was in life? Places I couldn't go?

Has Mark Sanford lost his mind? Doesn't he understand that you never, ever, ever admit that you loved the other woman? That you still have strong feelings for her? That part of you wishes you could leave your job and family and go with her?

The cynical interpretation of Sanford's heresy would be that in his case, the appeasement calculus goes the other way: He needs to convey love for his mistress rather than his wife, because his mistress could do him greater harm, perhaps by spilling more details of the relationship. But I don't buy that. Sanford has always been an idealist. A weirdo, but an idealist. I think he loved this other woman. I think he still does. And he won't belittle or renounce that love because it was, and is, something real.

I feel awful for Sanford's wife and kids. But compared with all the cheaters who have gone before him, I don't think less of him for genuinely loving the other woman or for admitting it. It beats the hell out of seducing somebody, kicking her to the curb, and pretending she was nothing to you—or really meaning it.

AP Video: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford Admits Affair