While the spectacular exercise in self-destruction South Carolina governor Mark Sanford has engaged in over the past couple weeks has been embarrassing, what I've found most embarrassing was some of the reaction to it.
Of course, what Sanford did was somewhat clichéd. He put his own special spin on an age-old tale, no doubt. But in the end, Sanford was just the same as those who came before him: a powerful man undone by sexual scandal. Nothing really new there.
But in the days following the release of e-mails between Sanford and his mistress, I saw something I'd never seen before.
When something like this happens to a politician, you expect certain things. The party hacks of the busted seek to minimize the damage and, if need be, cut the man loose to protect the cause. The other side seeks to cut the man's political jugular while it is exposed and attempt to amplify and universalize the situation. In this instance, it was Republicans on defense and Democrats on offense. But it could have been vice versa just as easy.
One lefty blogger, "Southern Beale," as well as other national blogs and comments on Twitter, actually showed some sympathy for the GOP governor. Why? Because his e-mails to his mistress showed genuine "love." Or, in another blogger's words, his e-mails were "hot."
"While I'm sure plenty of liberals are going to take potshots at him for those e-mails," wrote Beale, "I'm enough of a sap to find them charming. Touching. And terribly romantic."
But it doesn't end there.
"I just want to give Mark Sanford a hug. This guy poured his heart out onto the keyboard to his one true love, and I just hate to see him mocked for it. Call me sappy, hormonal, sentimental, whatever, but this is the stuff of a great summer romance," wrote Beale.
True love? Whether said in jest or not, there is something disturbing about seeing Sanford's words described this way. Is this how our culture views love? A married father of four, a leader of men, sending e-mails to a woman not his wife. This is love? I'm not even making a judgment about whether a politician's sex life should have bearing on his political life. That is a political question. I'm more concerned about our culture and how we view concepts like love and monogamy. Is there a sizable population out there that thinks those e-mails Sanford sent represent love?
Infatuation? Maybe. Romance? Possibly. Willful self-destruction? Definitely. But true love? How can you call a short-term, intercontinental, extramarital affair love? The relationship between Sanford and Maria Belen Chapur is not love. It is fleeting. It is a powerful man letting his sense of entitlement get to him. To call those e-mails evidence of love cheapens the concept.
As much as religious conservatives like to talk about gay marriage assaulting the institution, Sanford did more damage to traditional marriage than two men living together as husband and husband could ever possibly do. Because if Sanford's relationship was love, then we might as well throw the concept of monogamy right out the window. One cannot stay infatuated for a lifetime, after all. Even romance fades or at the very least ebbs and flows.
Love is not easy; it takes work. And although I admit I am no expert, it almost certainly does not come during jaunts to Buenos Aires.
We wonder why divorce rates are so high in this country. It's not gay marriage or even a lack of religion or faith. It's that everyone wants to be the star of their own personal romantic comedy. Everyone wants, as Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, the "fairy tale."
John Lennon famously said, "Life is what happens while you make other plans." Well, love is what happens while you are waiting on the fairy tale. That is, if you let it. Respect, loyalty, trust — these are the building blocks of love. Chasing infatuation like a junkie, like Sanford did, will get you nowhere — and quick.
Tan lines, the curve of a woman's hips, and the erotic beauty of a woman holding herself (three things cited in Sanford's e-mails) are all wonderful, don't get me wrong. But they are not love. And in our instant-gratification, disposable culture it has been increasingly instilled in our subconscious that we should search out and place value on superficial happiness.
Sanford did a selfish, self-absorbed thing. We condemn it, but many of us do it ourselves. Sometimes we violate the bonds of marriage to do it, sometimes we dissolve those bonds first. But chasing this oversexed, adolescent ideal of love is destructive, and it is rampant in our society.
Sex, romance, and adolescent infatuation are all fine things. But when those things go away, that which is left, that is what love is — or isn't. Mark Sanford forgot that. We should not.
A.C. Kleinheider writes the "Post Politics" blog for the Nashville Post, where a version of this column first appeared.