Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Affair to Remember

Politicians have affairs. Just like regular people have affairs. That, in and of itself, is extraordinarily dull, even when it does afford some self-righteous anger about the hypocrisy of "family-values" candidates devaluing their families, politicians who rail about the "sanctity of marriage" disrespecting the institution, etc.

What's interesting is the lengths politicians will go to cover up their affairs, and the hilarity that ensues when they realize they can't. Learning about South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's affair has been particularly ridiculous, with everything from decoy cars at two different airports to "five days of crying" in Argentina.

The most notable part of Sanford's press conference, and Nevada Senator John Ensign's last week, was the absence of their wives. Wives have traditionally accompanied disgraced politicians on their begging-for-forgiveness tours; those that do are scorned for not standing up for themselves, and those that don't are blamed when the press and the public assume that their marriage is over.

Wives as a part of these press conferences are generally assumed to be there for one of two reasons: either they're truly "standing by their man" and indicating forgiveness, or they're there as a favor to your soon-to-be-ex-husband, in order to provide political cover. In a New York Times piece about Silda Wall Spitzer, Anna Harvey, a political science professor at NYU, noted "What you’re trying to do when you have your spouse accompany you in a public forum like that is you’re trying to frame the issue as a private one.”

While this is clearly a political calculation, I think there's a kernel of truth in the excuse Harvey brings up: affairs, for the most part, should be a private matter. Obviously, in Sanford's case there is also the fact that he abandoned his state for a week, and in many other affairs before his there have been questions of misuse of funds and staff, but the actual questions of how the affair happened, who it happened with, and how it's going to affect the family are questions that are none of our business. While it's certainly entertaining to speculate about Sanford's "adventure vacation," and his wife's staid determination to stay out of the scandal, in the end Mark Sanford has to answer to his family, not the 427 other people he apologized to in that mess of a press conference.

Image Credit: Bob Rz

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