Mark Sanford’s real screwup

And another one bites the dust — a promising Republican, that is. Except it turns out this one, the governor of South Carolina wasn’t so promising after all. In fact, Mark Sanford, the strongly religious wayfaring social conservative, was more interested in knowing a woman in the biblical sense than he was in dealing with the affairs of his state.

It never seems to fail. Just when the GOP thinks it has a viable young leader with presidential potential, he has trouble getting his priorities straight. First there was John Ensign, the attractive Nevadan in the Senate GOP leadership, who seemed to be at the top of his political game but had made himself vulnerable to exposure with a married staff member. He bared it all before the cameras in a confession obviously designed to keep him from financial harm if nothing else.

Now this adulterer, who, like so many before him, spouts one thing while doing another. The truth is that the people of South Carolina probably should be far more concerned about his judgment than his conjugal socializing with an Argentine woman, which he tearfully admitted to after disappearing for nearly a week that included Fathers Day in an adventure that gives whole new meaning to breakfast in bed. Oh, did we mention he has four sons who probably wondered why the old man wasn’t around to get his tie?

This tryst really is unimportant in the scheme of things, except to his wronged spouse, an extremely attractive lady who unlike so many in the past did not stand stoically by her man as he confessed his King David-like activities in one of those sort of tawdry but more and more common titillating press conferences by errant public officials.

At any rate, the reality is that old Mark never was one to be taken seriously when considering who will carry the party’s banner to the White House one day. He always has been, as they say, somewhat off the wall, making a name recently outside the bedroom by refusing to accept bailout funds from the federal government even though the state could have used them. His behavior has been erratic enough that for a brief time his staff was able to convince everyone that he was off somewhere on the Appalachian Trail decompressing. They even believed it themselves, apparently because the story was reported with some bewilderment instead of the "wink, wink" that often accompany these matters.

It seems doubtful that some of the hard-bitten old pols hanging around the South Carolina statehouse believed it for a moment. The tip off was that his wife was said to be as much in the dark as everyone else. "Baloney," an old friend said when he first heard it. "He’s off on the trail all right but it has nothing to do with hiking."

The voters of the state now have a decision to make that has little to do with assignations with female foreigners. It is simply whether a top elected official should remain in office after leaving the state’s borders without telling anyone where he is going or how to reach him in case of an emergency, not even the lieutenant governor who is nominally in charge when the chief executive is gone. That, of course, is Sanford’s real crime and one that probably should carry a stiff penalty. Other than that there is strong evidence of sheer stupidity here.

One might compare this to the antics of another Southerner, Gov. Earl Long of Louisiana, who carried on with a stripper and took a tour around the nation visiting other governors, sometimes with a sack over his head, after escaping from a mental hospital by firing the superintendant. But at least Long was a bit "pixiated."

So the Grand Old Party is left with another mess to clean up and as more and more potential contenders for the dubious honor of heading the 2012 ticket fall away, straight-laced Mitt Romney of Massachusetts looks better and better to them. Meanwhile, Sanford should head for the Pampas with his Bible.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)