The strange, heartless glee at Sanford's downfall.

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June 24 2009 7:07 PM

Heartless

The disturbing glee at Mark Sanford's downfall.

Also in Slate: William Saletan on Sanford's surprisingly honest confession. Plus: Who is Cubby Culbertson, Sanford's "spiritual giant"? And a guide to politicians' reactions to sex scandals.

Mark Sanford is no longer missing, but he's obviously lost. The South Carolina governor's press conference was excruciating: apology, followed by self-flagellation, followed by apology. It was like watching a man light himself on fire. I thought about his kids mustering up the courage to watch it on YouTube some day. I thought about his wife having to suffer the anger and the loss. Perhaps even worse, she's also going to have to endure the armies of pity and the people like me trying to guess what her feelings are.

The scandal has ended Sanford's national political career. If the affair wasn't enough to do in Sanford as a presidential candidate, his erratic behavior was. He may be forced to resign as governor. Even if he stays in office, Democrats will figure out how much to exploit the scandal for their advantage.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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The Sanford episode makes the bad position of the Republican Party only marginally worse. The fundamental problem for Republicans is they have no leader. Perhaps Sanford could have been that guy, but I don't think the GOP is going to solve its problems with a white man from the heart of the Confederacy. They have that vote covered.

The personal impact of the Sanford affair is more gripping than the political. Sanford has done a horrible thing to his wife and family and friends. He seemed to know and feel this more profoundly than other politicians we've seen go through this familiar apology exercise before. That doesn't excuse him. Not that he was asking that anyone excuse him. He seemed to be trying to take all the blame, as he should. Some might think his explanations were excuses. To me they seemed like a man confessing the details of a crime.

The minute Sanford started speaking, the reviews poured in via e-mail and Twitter. He was rambling, confused. He didn't tear up enough when talking about his wife. He favored his mistress. He answered the questions too thoroughly. All these judgments seemed absurd. A man standing in front of a bank of cameras in the middle of a complete collapse is going to say a lot of things poorly.

The snap judgments failed to acknowledge a grain of the fundamental human carnage we were witnessing. You can laugh at Sanford, as you can laugh at a video of a wrecked Amy Winehouse falling all over her house. But at some point, even though they did it to themselves, you have to feel sorry for them as human beings. You can do that, I think, and not be a fan of adultery or drug use.

I'm not offering Sanford's humanity as an excuse. I'm just marveling at how few people stopped for a moment to even nod to it. My thoughtful colleague William Saletan and Andrew Sullivan were exceptions. Maybe there are others. Maybe people expressed these views in private conversations. But in the e-mails and Twitter entries and blog posts I read in the aftermath, Sanford's human ruin was greeted with what felt like antiseptic glee. The pain he's caused, the hypocrisies he's engaged in, seemed like license to deny him any humanity at all.

Sanford's fumbling efforts to explain how he's tried to rescue himself with his faith offered some people an opportunity to make fun of his religion, as if a confused, lost, flawed person were the right spokesman for anything. People tend to think the most awful thing about a person is the most true thing. They also apparently think it's the most true thing about his or her associations. So an e-mail arrived asking, "[I]s there any Republican not sleeping around?" Maybe Sanford should have been a presidential candidate. He apparently represents an entire party and an entire religion.

What Mark Sanford seemed to be trying to say is that he screwed up, in the biggest possible way, because he lost his bearings. He lost his self-control. He was indulgent. He forgot that there were other humans in the world. Yet in the constant flow of abuse, joke-making, and grand conclusions about his failings, it seemed everyone having a good time pointing at his self-indulgence was also engaging in a form of it.

AP Video: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford Admits Affair