Sitting in Reno, Nevada, at the Conservative Leadership Conference (CLC) two years ago, I was awed by the governor of South Carolina. Here, at last, was someone who got it. Someone who understood the danger of big government and big spending, and that, yes, our civilization was on the line.
Chuck Muth of Citizen Outreach, who hoped to turn the CLC into CPAC West, reminded us that at the first CPAC a future president (Ronald Reagan) spoke and suggested perhaps we’d heard one at CLC. He then gave Governor Mark Sanford the Barry Goldwater Award. After the event, I walked over to Governor Sanford, gave him my card, and told him to call if he ever decided to run for president.
After recent events, I don’t expect to hear from Governor Sanford. The revelation of his affair with a woman in Argentina is gravely disappointing. Coming as it does on the heels of revelations about Senator John Ensign (R-NV) having an affair, it raises a whole spate of questions.
For years many have insisted these issues of personal character don’t matter. We heard that repeatedly during the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani. His supporters insisted that the issues in Giuliani’s life were private.
Of course, it’s more than a family matter. Fairly or unfairly, the policy agenda that Governor Sanford advocated will be set back. And Americans hearing him speak about how the government is bankrupting our kids will be unable to avoid thinking of how Sanford spent Father’s Day in the arms of another woman.
In the post-Clinton era, some pundits suggested the American people had become more accepting of adultery by public figures. Yet we’ve seen a number of political figures brought down by sex scandals: Elliot Spitzer, Jim McGreevey, Larry Craig, and now Mark Sanford. The approval rating of Governor Jim Gibbons (R-NV) has been battered by his messy divorce. Likewise, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) should be safe for the rest of his political life, but Democrats smell blood and are trying to recruit the state’s sole Democratic congressman to run against him. Ensign represents Sin City, but that hasn’t stopped his approval rating from dropping fourteen points.
America’s reaction to the Clintons was an aberration, because the Clintons themselves were aberrant. A wife willing to tolerate a husband cheating on her in order to advance her own career is practically inviting her husband to cheat. It was still wrong, but Americans found it hard to become outraged at Bill Clinton’s affairs when they didn’t believe Hillary was outraged.
Adultery is familial tragedy, but it is far more than that. It is a breach of trust with church, state, and community. When it hits at the highest levels of power, the consequences are tremendous. As the nation teeters on the brink of insolvency, Sanford’s actions not only harm his family, but the agenda he advanced.
The easiest thing to do is simply write Mark Sanford off as a bad egg who fooled us into thinking him one of the good guys.
First, conservative leaders should pause to consider themselves. Recently, I heard a candidate for Congress boast that, at 40, he could spend two or more decades in Congress. He hastened to add that he would support term limits if they were introduced. Basically, “power corrupts, but not me.”
What happened to Governor Sanford could happen to any of us if we’re not careful. This doesn’t excuse Sanford, but it should cause our political leaders to rethink their approach.
Leaders need to take a look at how they connect with their families. It’s common among political leaders to leave their spouse and children behind while traveling across the country on business. The thought seems to be that this creates “normalcy” for the kids and frees the non-political spouse from the burden of constant trips back and forth.
However, this “normalcy” has a price: being disconnected from family. How many nights does your average state-level politician spend in hotel rooms completely and totally alone, separated from their family and from reality itself in the haze of politics?
Political leaders, as well as those thinking of entering the arena, should consider how they’re going to stay in touch with their family, and cleave to them as a stabilizing anchor in the political storms rather than drifting without a plan. Officeholders need to know themselves and their weaknesses, not do things that are going to put them at risk.
In his 2000 presidential campaign, two of Gary Bauer’s chief campaign advisers resigned because Bauer was spending hours behind closed doors with a 27-year-old female campaign aide. There was no proof Bauer and the aide had done anything improper, only that it created the appearance of sexual impropriety.
Bauer’s campaign advisers were shown to be wiser than they were given credit for during the last campaign, when unproven allegations against Senator John McCain were given voice in the New York Times based on the amount of time he spent with a female lobbyist.
The previous generation’s efforts to avoid the appearance of impropriety with the opposite sex may seem outdated, but it is time to revisit them. Maybe we don’t have to go as far as Billy Graham, who won’t drive a woman to the airport unescorted, but I’d rather political leaders follow Billy Graham’s example than Bauer, McCain, and Sanford.
Political leaders need to surround themselves with friends and moral supports. And those who work with political leaders need to understand they’re dealing with a human being and that family issues are going to have a lot to do with how well a political leader does in public life. Supporting them in their family life is critical.
A lot of conservative energy went into Mark Sanford and has been completely wasted. If conservatives want to avoid a repeat, they’ll need to focus on the families of their political leaders.