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Mark Sanford: If I Can't Have Your Forgiveness, Can I at Least Have Your Vote?

By Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson
February 21, 2013 9:41 AM EST

This week in Margaret Carlson's and Ramesh Ponnuru's discussion about politics: forgiveness, redemption and the Republican Party.

Ramesh: Mark Sanford has left the Appalachian Trail for the comeback trail. The South Carolina Republican wants to go back to the U.S. House, which is where he served before becoming governor. In an ad he alludes to the extramarital affair that rendered him notorious in 2009: “I’ve experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes. But in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be the better for it.”

Conservative activist Erick Erickson endorsed Sanford, saying he was right on the issues and deserves “rehabilitation.” He added, “I am willing to forgive him. And I’m willing to be graceful.” It’s a laudable impulse. To forgive someone’s lapses, though, is not the same as saying they should have no consequences.

And in this case, the sin that should chiefly concern the public was not Sanford's unfaithfulness to his wife, Jenny, but his faithlessness toward the people of South Carolina. He was gone for a week, his location unknown to the public, his lieutenant governor, and even the state security services. I wouldn’t do this to my employer or colleagues, and my responsibilities are a lot less important than a governor’s. He took his duties much too lightly. Even that can be forgiven; but it can’t be excused.

I am quite prepared to believe that Sanford will get to heaven more easily than I will. I hope he does get there. I’d prefer he not get back into public office, however.

The best model for a politician disgraced by scandal, I have long thought, is John Profumo. He had to leave the British government in 1963 after the exposure of his involvement with a prostitute who was also in bed with a Soviet attache. He devoted the rest of his life to quiet good works. Sadly, that’s not an example that anyone in American public life these days -- from Sanford to Eliot Spitzer to John Edwards -- seems interested in following.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

Margaret: Ramesh, I suspect I’m going to need a second chance one of these days, so I like to give them. If you are big enough to forgive, why aren’t you able to forget what Sanford did? He’s asking for another opportunity to serve the public.

I got to know Sanford when he ran the Republican Governors Association. He was smart, effective, pragmatic and level-headed. He was religious, but not overly so.

Maybe I’m softer on Sanford than you are because I have seen people fall crazy in love and do incredibly destructive things. We're all ridiculous in the first throes of love. For many of us it’s a joy to fall in love even when it’s messy. For a married politician, it’s a tragedy.

So he was neither hiking nor on the Appalachian Trail. But complaining about his behavior as a security breach, Ramesh, is another way of complaining about his tryst. At the time of his "hike," the Sanfords were already in a trial separation, and she knew about the woman in Argentina. His wife probably could have gotten in touch with him if one of the children had broken a leg or, say, North Carolina invaded South Carolina.

Another South Carolinian, Stephen Colbert, has made fun of our need to know every move a public official makes. About Obama’s no-press weekend of golf, Colbert wondered if we shouldn’t demand to follow the president “when he locks himself alone in a small tiled room.”

Sanford’s press conference upon his return to South Carolina was like none I’d ever seen. There he was, an exposed man, so aware of the pain and misery he had caused, his emotions raw. He talked regretfully about having fallen in love, fallen afoul of his vows and about “the odyssey that we’re all on in life with regard to the heart.” Often a man who cheats on his wife cheats in his life. Sanford didn’t look like such a man that day.

You are happy to forgive, but want Sanford’s conduct to have consequences. It did: He lost his job, and any chance for the presidency is now remote at best. He was humiliated and had to rebuild his life with his family, which he seems to have done.

While it is a privilege to serve, it is hell to run. Ramesh, maybe you should see the upcoming Senate primary in South Carolina as a form of penance for Mark Sanford?

Meanwhile, what do you make of Sarah Palin's "comeback"? She lost her Fox News contract, but she's giving a big speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference next month. I'm surprised she was invited. Palin doesn't even make Bill Kristol's heart skip a beat anymore. Still, I bet she gets the largest ovation of the meeting -- and therein lies a bigger problem for the Republican Party than Mark Sanford.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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