Thursday, June 25, 2009

Buenos Errors

Today, we're getting a flurry of news — nearly 40% of the states face the possibility of shutdowns as their budget deadlines approach, the world continues to watch as events unfold in Iran, the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona school administrators violated a 13–year–old girl's rights with a strip search and actress Farrah Fawcett has died of cancer — and the relationship between South Carolina's governor and a woman from Argentina doesn't seem too important to me.

Mark Sanford's press conference yesterday was a spectacle, all right. After days of speculation concerning his whereabouts, he made what Frank Wooten called in The Post and Courier a "cringe–worthy" appearance before the media.

I've been told that he was regarded as a contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Frankly, I was told the same thing about Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who revealed his own affair less than two weeks ago.

But such talk must have been confined to limited political circles. I consider myself to be pretty well informed on political topics, but I never heard either man mentioned as a serious presidential contender until after the news of their affairs broke.

I'm inclined to believe that these affairs wouldn't be regarded as matters of interest to most people across the nation if it weren't for the fact that both men are members of the Republican Party — the "family values" party — and are mentioned, if only in hindsight, as presidential contenders.

Indeed, I've heard the word "hypocritical" used to describe Republican politicians like Sanford and Ensign, who supported the move to impeach President Clinton, allegedly because he cheated on his wife. But, as Wooten points out, Clinton was impeached not because he had an affair but because he lied about it under oath. The articles of impeachment did not accuse Clinton of infidelity. They accused him of committing perjury, obstructing justice and abusing power.

Technically, that is so. But it is also true that these things get confused in the public mind. We're long past the time in our history when being divorced was an obstacle to the White House, but infidelity remains a significant stumbling block.

Gary Hart's presidential ambitions were destroyed when the public learned of his relationship with Donna Rice. John Edwards may have been able to seek the presidency again in the future if not for revelations of his affair with a campaign staffer; he may still be able to do so someday, but it seems doubtful right now.

And other politicians — the most recent and most obvious examples being Mark Foley and Larry Craig — have seen their political careers ended by sex scandals. To be fair, Foley was not guilty of infidelity, but his scandal, like Craig's, was homosexual in nature — and it involved minors, which was hypocritical in its own way, considering that Foley waged a campaign, while in the House, against pedophiles.

Ensign's relationship may well be a subject for the people of his state to debate three years from now — that is when he is due to run for re–election. But Mark Sanford is barred by state law from seeking another term as governor in 2010. Unless he decides to seek another office, this is a matter that is between him and his wife and their four sons.

Nevertheless, the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald Journal wasted no time in calling for Sanford's resignation. "Mark Sanford cannot navigate a deep and painful personal crisis and lead the state through its economic crisis at the same time," the newspaper wrote.

(To put things into perspective, the newspaper endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. It also endorsed George W. Bush when he sought re–election in 2004.)

Do you want to know what really concerns me in these matters? It isn't the fact that both Ensign and Sanford apparently violated their spouses' trust. I don't want to trivialize that. But I think it's something that is private.

The part that is public — and reflects poorly on their qualifications for the presidency — is their bad judgment. I think that is especially true of Sanford, who reportedly used taxpayer funds to travel to Argentina to be with his mistress.

It is appropriate for voters to assess the judgment of a politician. Whether it is Gary Hart insisting that reporters would be disappointed if they tried to catch him in the act (even though he knew they would not be) or Mark Sanford traveling to Argentina on the taxpayers' dimes, their actions speak volumes about their judgment.

I don't live in South Carolina so what Sanford does about the remainder of his term as governor does not concern me. But I am a citizen of the United States — and, as such, I am entitled to evaluate the judgment of any person who asks for my vote for the presidency.

In that regard, both Ensign and Sanford are far short of my standards.

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