The XX Factor

Should We Admire Sanford’s Honesty?

Slate ’s Will Saletan has a provocative defense of Sanford today:

I feel awful for Sanford’s wife and kids. But compared with all the cheaters who have gone before him, I don’t think less of him for genuinely loving the other woman or for admitting it. It beats the hell out of seducing somebody, kicking her to the curb, and pretending she was nothing to you-or really meaning it.

I suppose there is some honesty in that. But let’s remember that he was doing it at a press conference . Surely John Edwards and John Ensign and even Eliot Spitzer have explanations for what drew them to their mistress, or prostitutes. Surely these explanations would humanize them and force us to picture standing in their shoes (or pants, I guess). But they stay silent, because they implicitly understand that, at that moment, any self-serving explanation comes at the expense of the people they have betrayed. True repentance does not begin with self justification and elaborate vows to repent. It begins with some form of suffering.

For such a private man, Sanford seems to make little distinction between his inner and public lives. In the press conference, he seemed to regard his responsibility to South Carolina’s voters as equal to his responsibility to his wife. In the same e-mail, he writes to his mistress about becoming a vice presidential candidate and about the “erotic beauty of you holding yourself.” This is the natural consequence, I suppose, of having turned “family values” into a political issue; after a while the distinctions begin to blur.