Sanford affair is either high school drama or Greek tragedy

There is only so much you can do to help a child recover from a broken heart, especially the first time it is broken. You can say, “Honey, I know it seems like you’ll never get over it, but someday you will. You’ll learn the difference between infatuation and real love. Your hormones will calm down and you will make better decisions. Being an adult isn’t all peaches and cream, but at least you will learn to control your feelings, instead of having them control you.”

You can say that the fire that consumes adolescent hearts will one day be replaced by something not quite as hot, but still warm, and more abiding. You can liken love to a blanket that protects you, rather than burning you up if you get too close. You can say that passion is great, but dignity is even better, and they will understand that one day when they are older. You can say that even though it hurts so much now, that one of the consolations of adulthood is that you no longer have no control over reckless impulses and obsessive thoughts. So what if they wrote an embarrassing letter that all their friends have probably read and laughed at? It’s not as if the entire country knows about it — no one is reading excerpts from it on the nightly news, are they? In two weeks, everyone will be talking about something else anyway, right?

Regardless of what you might say, you must admit that kids have a way of asking questions for which there are no good answers, no satisfactory metaphors or soothing platitudes.

“But mom, what about Mark Sanford?”

Can we just step back from this for a moment and admit that we are no longer shocked — or even mildly surprised — when stories break on the sexual indiscretions of politicians? Tom Brokaw might as well report that a truckload of produce was delivered to Ingles this morning. Oh really? You don’t say.

Can we also agree that, notwithstanding the sanctimonious posturing of the Republican Party during the Clinton/Monica Lewinski scandal, this is one issue that is definitely bipartisan? Want to start scandal swapping? I’ll see your John Edwards and raise you a Newt Gingrich.

The Sanford story is remarkable not because another politician got caught in a sex scandal. It is remarkable for how much it veers from the script we all know so very well. The story begins with rumors. Strong denials are issued. There is a “smoking gun,” either a scorned mistress or an “anonymous source” talks to the press, confirming the rumors. The press bears down, gathers evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Documentation is discovered.

Now come the tearful confessions, the press conferences, the mea culpas, the promises to do better, the appeals for forgiveness. Always, ALWAYS, with the wife standing dutifully by his side, gaze steady, resolute. The unspoken message: WE will weather this. We will rebound. He really IS a good man, after all, and I am a strong woman, strong enough to forgive him, strong enough to endure this humiliation for the sake of the marriage, for the sake of his career, for the sake of our mutual ambition.

Evidently, Jenny Sanford did not care so much for this script. Indeed, she has written her own, one that resembles a Greek tragedy less than it resembles ... well, high school. In her drama, she and Mark are king and queen of the prom, popular students who have been going steady for a long time, which EVERYBODY knows. And then this exotic foreign exchange student appears one day, and suddenly he’s acting all funny and stuff. Things begin to change. She catches people whispering, shaking their heads sadly when she walks into her organic chemistry class.

Now she can’t get a straight answer from him. Finally, she gives in to her suspicions, begins looking into it. His cell phone records, text messages, Myspace, Facebook, whatever she can think of. And then she finds this:

“You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light — but hey, that would be going into sexual details ...”

Her tan lines? Two magnificent parts of herself? What was he now, William Freakin’ Shakespeare? Danielle Steele? Next thing she knows, the whole thing is published in the school newspaper, so now the whole school knows about it, and you know what, it’s good enough for him! Pathetic wretch.

Of course, he begs her to stay with him. BEGS her, in front of everybody! Maybe, she says. They do have a history together, all the way back to middle school. She can see he’s really sorry. She says there might be a chance, but he had better straighten up. Most of all, he had better NEVER see what’s her name again.

So what does he do? He tells her he’s going camping with Chowder and Big Stan to “clear his head,” and then spends the weekend with her at some hotel in Gatlinburg. Can you believe that?

It’s going to take a LOT to get her back. Everybody in the school is on her side. She’s the victim, but she’s also in total control. She has all the power, all the sympathy. He’s the schmuck, the fallen prince who has become the fool. It’ll be up to her if he ever amounts to anything in this school ever again.

She’ll keep a copy of his emails with her. If he so much as LOOKS at another girl in the mall or wherever, she’ll whip out his “Ode to Tan Lines” and read a couple of verses to him.

OK, so maybe adulthood is not the guarantee against a broken heart you may have told your kids it was. I guess you could say, “Kids, the good news is that you could grow up to be a governor some day. The bad news is even that won’t save you from getting a broken heart if you get a little reckless.”

Or your girlfriend from giving you hell from now on if you do. You may want to keep that in mind.


(The excerpt quoted from the email message is taken verbatim from Mark Sanford’s actual emails to “the other woman.” Everything else has been “dramatized.” Chris Cox can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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