Mark Sanford's press conference on Wednesday -- the most recent in what seems like a weekly series of GOP infidelity apologies -- made for riveting television; the more you listened to the South Carolina governor, the less interesting the story's political implications became compared to the raw human drama of a man getting crushed by the consequences of falling in love. Sanford's sudden implosion seems that the political fates have decided that to save the GOP they must destroy it, or, in their own parlance, the party must be born again. Sanford was that rare figure who fought at the barricades of the GOP revolution in 1994 and who survived its collapse with enough credibility intact to think about a future.
And while Sanford's very public act of contrition fits the ongoing theme of GOP disintegration, the press conference itself represented a stark evolution in the political-apology genre. Sanford did things people in his position never do: He admitted that he was in love and that the relationship was not over. He apologized to his mistress as much as to his wife, and he did not even remotely pretend that the worst was behind him. "Forgiveness is not an immediate process; it is in fact a process that takes time, and I'll be in that process for quite some weeks and months and, I suspect, years ahead," Sanford said.
Sanford also admitted to some rather extraordinary things in the desperately reckless way that people in love sometimes do. He suggested, for example, that he talked to his father-in-law about the affair. Admitting to a man that you are not in love with his daughter who has devoted 20 years of her life to you and given you four sons is, at the very least, damned-foolery. But acting stupidly is one of the traditional behaviors associated with being in love.
Sanford talked a lot about his heart: "I spent the last five days, and I was crying in Argentina so I could repeat it when I came back here, in saying, you know, while, indeed, from a heart level, there was something real." Note the incomprehensible, rambling language. But he wrote e-mails to his lover, however, that were worthy of a great love story -- grand emotional love letters that should have been written in ink and on parchment, instead of tossed off from some lowly Gmail or Yahoo account.
He and his lover, a woman named Maria, called each other "Sweetest" and "My Beloved." In one e-mail, Sanford fantasizes about her breasts and quotes from First Corinthians, chapter 13. ("Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.") She ends a note to him this way: "Send you all my love and goodnight kisses. Sweet dreams from down south. I'll dream with you."
These e-mails likely will end Sanford's marriage, despite the courage and grace his wife has shown in these early stages of the crisis. These e-mails will also probably end Sanford's political career, because they reveal a deep ambivalence about the sacrifice required to go forward. And they will reinforce and prolong the stories about the GOP's existential crisis.
In one e-mail Sanford writes that, excepting the job of president, he had risen as high as he could in American politics: "There are but 50 governors in my country and outside of the top spot, this is as high as you can go in the area I have invested the last 15 years of my life." And Sanford is not just any governor. He has long carried special burdens related to the future of rebuilding his party. He is a solid conservative, both fiscally and culturally, in the Ronald Reagan mold -- he had emerged as one of the most attractive and credible heralds of the party message of lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, and strong advocacy of personal and community morality.
The Republican Governors Association, which Sanford chaired until his resignation this week, presently blares this headline: "The GOP Comeback Begins with Republican Governors." Sanford was to lead that comeback. Now he can't.
It is worth noting the important role that South Carolina often plays in deciding the GOP presidential nomination. After the anomalous showcases of Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is where the base of the party -- Southern, conservative, evangelical -- first shows up in sizable numbers. Ask John McCain who lost South Carolina in 2000 and won it in 2008. Sanford would have been hard to beat there in 2012.
But Sanford's heart does not seem in it. Minutes after he got off the plane from Buenos Aries on Wednesday, a reporter from one of his home-state newspapers confronted the governor and got him to chat about his odd behavior. Clearly, the last thing on the guy's mind was running for president. "I don't hate my job," he told Gina Smith of The State newspaper. In Smith's considered judgment, though, "he was close to hating it." Sanford told Smith that being governor was an opportunity to accomplish big things. "Unfortunately," he said, "I didn't."
Didn't. Past Tense. Done.
Sanford apologized to people of faith for his betrayal, and he certainly hoped to be forgiven. The scripture passage he quotes in his e-mail to Maria ends this way: "And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."
And love may be his final undoing.