© 2024 WUKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Gov. Sanford Latest Star In Infidelity Parade


This week's admission by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford that he had strayed in his marriage was scarcely unique among politicians or people. But the resulting political implosion has become a regular feature of political life these days.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: It's surprising that it's even surprising anymore.

Ms. PAMELA DRUCKERMAN (Author, "Lust in Translation"): It's almost as if we're willfully shocked by it.

SMITH: Pamela Druckerman wrote a book about infidelity in different cultures. It's called "Lust in Translation." There's cheating everywhere, but in the American political system it's been raised to an artform.

Ms. DRUCKERMAN: Each time there's this ritual, this script that we feel almost obliged to follow, and so nobody is satisfied until it's fully played out.

SMITH: The intersection of infidelity and American politics goes back to those rumors about Thomas Jefferson. But the modern script of public apology and atonement was written by none other than President Bill Clinton. After months of denial, Mr. Clinton addressed the nation.

President BILL CLINTON: Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.

SMITH: Druckerman says the president was demonstrating the therapeutic model, the same one used by couples in marriage counseling: lay out all the details and take responsibility. President Clinton seemed to think that should be enough for the public.

President CLINTON: It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.

SMITH: Oh, but since then private lives have become our national life. I can name 27 political sex scandals, big and small, since Bill Clinton: governors, senators, presidential candidates, mayors, all standing in the glare of the TV lights, virtually all of them men following that same script.

First, the facts.

Governor MARK SANFORD (Republican, South Carolina): So the bottom line is this: I've been unfaithful to my wife.

SMITH: That's Governor Sanford this week. The politician then goes on to acknowledge the pain and take the blame.

Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina): I was wrong.

Governor ELIOT SPITZER (Democrat, New York): I've acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family.

Governor JAMES MCGREEVEY (Democrat, New Jersey): I accept total and full responsibility.

SMITH: Former presidential candidate John Edwards, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, and former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. All of them then completed the ritual: praise the suffering spouse, promise to move forward, and deliver the kicker.

Mayor KWAME KILPATRICK (Detroit, Michigan): I'm sorry.

Representative TIM MAHONEY (Democrat, Florida): I'm sorry that these allegations have caused embarrassment and heartache.

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): And I'm so very, very sorry.

SMITH: That's former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, former Florida Congressman Tim Mahoney, and one guy who actually kept his job, current Louisiana Senator David Vitter.

Only about four percent of men admit to researchers that they cheated over the last year. And there are no stats to tell us if infidelity is somehow more common among politicians. But author Pamela Druckerman says they certainly have the opportunity - they travel more often, they meet more people...

Ms. DRUCKERMAN: And we often look for a president or political leader who has seductive qualities. But we also miss a step and we say, well, we want him to be seductive in his qualities but we don't want him to then go out and seduce.

SMITH: So they have the means but what's the motive? Stanley Renshon is a professor of political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He's also a trained psychotherapist.

Professor STANLEY RENSHON (City University of New York Graduate Center): The real element there is entitlement. They feel, you know, I'm me. I deserve to be able to do this. You know, I should get what I want. I have a history of getting what I want, and why should this time be any different?

SMITH: But when Renshon watched Governor Sanford this week, he saw something else: a distinct lack of swagger and a real remorse.

Professor RENSHON: A sense of feeling thwarted and feeling cut off and being in a cul-de-sac, and really just having to act on this idea or this need. And of course when you're in public life, you know, that carries a lot of consequences with it and you can't do it quietly.

SMITH: Even if you run away to Argentina, the script and the TV cameras are waiting when you get back.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.