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The Curious Return of Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford's bizarre return to politics proves it's possible to do something so heinous that it ruins your position in politics, pop culture, and polite society, then come back relatively unscathed. How did the disgraced Congressman turn it all around?
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I kind of owe Mark Sanford. The scandal that led him to assume the role of poor, dumb, love-struck Paris, willing to bring war to Troy's gates in the name of forbidden desire, was the jumping off point for what I think is the best piece ever to be published over at my little corner of the internet. What I wrote was personal and undeniably nihilistic, a treatise on my own beliefs about love and loss as I desperately tried to navigate the darkness in the period immediately following the devastating break-up with my wife at the time, and I kind of have Sanford's indiscretion to thank for it. Now Sanford has given me another reason to throw a sincere thank-you in his direction -- and it has to do with his apparent redemption in the wake of that initial scandal. It all comes full circle, I suppose.


As you probably know by now, Sanford won Tuesday's Republican primary run-off in South Carolina's 1st District, making him the guy who'll go up against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch -- sister of Stephen Colbert -- in the general election. The prize is a seat in the U.S. House. Sanford faces a tough challenge in Colbert Busch, but regardless of the outcome of that race he's already won a huge victory by proving that just three-and-a-half years after an ugly PR catastrophe that should have, for all intents and purposes, put a tombstone over his political career, enough voters are willing to forgive him that he's one step away from being a United States Representative. Just a decade or so ago it would've been impossible to imagine him clawing his way back into the good graces of the public in such a short amount of time and with so little discernible effort, and yet here he is now -- his transformation from cynical, reptilian liar and philanderer to mildly respectable public servant just about complete in the eyes of quite a few.

For a long time now I've been saying this and, thanks to Sanford, I feel like I'm getting a very nice little shot of pure validation at the moment: scandals don't last anymore. Yes, it's possible to do something so heinous that it ruins your position in politics, pop culture, or polite society in general and makes you essentially radioactive, but the number of sins that cause that kind of far-reaching damage is dwindling. It's not simply because as a people we've become desensitized to scandal -- although that's certainly true -- but also because our rapid-fire media culture now ensures that we don't stay fixated on one incident for very long, no matter how titillating. News cycles turn over in 24 hours. Social networking has shortened our attention spans to 140 characters. We descend on something in seconds, turn it into an inescapable meme, then move on to the next shiny thing that catches our attention. We can be thoroughly immersed in a news item that outrages us, makes us cheer, makes us laugh or cry, and so on -- and have completely forgotten about that item a couple of days later in favor of something else. Monty Python's newscaster deadpanning, "And now for something completely different," has never seemed more prescient.

When Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted pictures of his dick to the entire country two years ago, and was busted for doing so, there were immediate calls for him to resign. The media beat the hell out of the story, no pun intended. Everyone was paying attention. But at the time, I wrote that Weiner could easily survive the scandal and keep his House seat; all he had to do was lay low for a while and wait. In time, and not very much time either, the hungry piranha that were feasting on him would be distracted by another large animal that had inadvertently wandered into the water and they'd move on to that. Then, in keeping with the now-perfectly predictable cycle of new media sensationalism, he could emerge contrite, humbly seeking a measure of redemption and being able to point to all the incredible things he had continued to do for the people he served, even as his life was crumbling around him. Weiner's only mistake in the wake of his personal PR disaster was walking away. He didn't have to.

Mark Sanford is living, breathing proof of that. Sure, he lost his political career briefly and faced ethics fines, but what he did was far worse than what Weiner did and yet his "comeback" has taken just three-and-a-half years. It's like the producers of Spider-man rebooted him. There's no denying that a good portion of Sanford's quick return is owed to his own mind-boggling arrogance. Not only did he have the balls to believe -- correctly, it turned out -- that he was so publicly likable and so good at his job that most people would overlook the fact that he was a piece of shit in his personal life, but he also asked his now-ex-wife Jenny, the once-scorned woman, to help run his campaign. He invoked and thanked Jesus, of course, after his Tuesday victory, saying that he's received "God's grace" and is a testament to the impact that it's had on his life and "in so many lives across this state and across this nation."

If all of this sounds like the height of narcissism and cynicism, it almost certainly is. But it's possible due not to Sanford but to us and the way we're now shaped by the media. Admittedly, Republican voters -- definitely ones in South Carolina -- are willing to swallow the typically bitter pill of forgiveness because it's generally in their DNA as Christians. It remains to be seen whether Sanford's act will fly with an audience that isn't quite as predisposed to be both friendly and easily dupable. Still, Sanford shouldn't even be in the position he's in right now -- and yet here he is.

Of course the flip side of the mercurial nation our hyper-connected media culture has created is that Mark Sanford can once again be out of the public eye as quickly as he returned to it.