Sanford's Argentina Affair Is a Lesson on Character and Power

A straight shooter strays, and one wonders how to feel.

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Linda Killian is the author of The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution? She is a professor of journalism and director of the Boston University Washington Center and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

It's no big surprise that yet another political figure has been involved in an affair or sexual indiscretion. But as someone who has known Mark Sanford since he was elected to Congress in 1994 as part of the class that gave House Republicans their historic majority, I must admit to being shocked. And I wasn't the only one.

"I was blown away—completely stunned," one of his congressional Republican colleagues told me.

Sanford has always appeared to be a highly principled straight shooter—a fiscal conservative, almost to the point of eccentricity, as illustrated by the recent battle he waged as governor of South Carolina not to accept federal stimulus money.

Soft-spoken but with a tendency to say exactly what he thought, he was a supporter of campaign finance reform who didn't take PAC money for his campaigns. Although his family was of ample means, he slept in his congressional office when he was in Washington to save money and make a point. He believed in term limits and pledged to serve only three terms in the House, a promise that unlike some of his Class of '94 colleagues he kept, leaving Congress in 2000.

He was part of the group that challenged then House Speaker Newt Gingrich because they thought he had become an ineffective leader and was straying too far from the goals of a balanced budget and smaller government, ultimately resulting in Gingrich's resignation from the leadership and the House.

Now Gingrich and Sanford, both considered potential presidential candidates in 2012, have their infidelities in common. Gingrich was involved with his current—third—wife while still married to his second wife. Ironically, that relationship was going on at the same time as Bill Clinton's infamous dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

In an interview with Maclean's in 1998, Sanford said of Congress, "This is a human institution. Take it as a given that weird stuff goes on." Indeed.

Sanford's Wednesday press conference certainly qualified as weird and was filled with the kind of personal confessions and details that might have more appropriately been discussed in a therapy session under the subject heading "The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants."

Sanford apologized to his family and to everyone who lives in South Carolina, he asked for forgiveness, he said he had hurt a lot of people and let people down, he admitted to acting selfishly, he talked about sin and God's law, he admitted lying to his staff about where he was, and he talked about the "remarkable friendship" he had developed with a woman in Buenos Aires.

If that weren't enough, some poetic E-mails between Sanford and his South American amour professing their love for each other and the impossibility of their relationship were released by the South Carolina newspaper The State.

Whoever thought we would be reading an E-mail from the governor of South Carolina to his lover that said, "My heart cries out for you, your voice, your body, the touch of your lips, the touch of your finger tips and an even deeper connection to your soul." Oh, boy.

One isn't quite sure whether to feel pity or disdain for Sanford.

You know your political career is on life support when you are featured in David Letterman's opening monologue, he continues to talk about you once he starts the show, and you are the subject of the Top Ten List all on the same night.

The schadenfreude that many people are feeling at Sanford's situation probably stems largely from the fact that whether it was family values or government spending, Sanford and other GOP members of the Class of '94 exuded a holier than thou morality and sense of superiority that has proven to be wholly unearned. John Ensign, Mark Foley, and Bob Ney were also members of the Class of '94, just to mention a few of the most recent of the group felled by scandal and misdeed.