Mark Sanford only looks washed up. True, as governor of South Carolina, he recently walked off his job to secretly visit his mistress in Argentina. And, true, he was forced to admit his affair in a news conference that made him look stressed out at best and unbalanced at worst.
And, true, at first glance, this appears to have cost him any chance of getting the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. But only at first glance. In reality, there are at least four things Sanford has going for him:
1. He knows how to use people. Before you can lead people, you have to know how to exploit them. When Sanford first ran for Congress in 1994, it was his wife, according to The Washington Post, who actually ran the campaign, even though she "had a 15-month-old and a newborn to care for." And, as the years went by, she "oversaw his staff, drafted his speeches, set policy and raised money."
And how did Sanford repay her? By betraying and humiliating her, of course. But that is OK, because now he is really, really sorry, and he is asking for G-d's forgiveness and her forgiveness and the public's forgiveness, which is really no more than he deserves.
And he deserves it, he says, because his plight is just like the plight of King David. "David failed, literally, and yet he reconstructed his life, put it back together and became a guy who was after G-d's spirit," Sanford recently told reporters. "So I would say I'm on the larger voyage."
Why do I get the impression, by the way, that Sanford's image of King David is drawn not from the Bible so much as from the 1951 Darryl Zanuck epic "David and Bathsheba," in which Gregory Peck sins but still ends up with Susan Hayward?
No matter. Sanford knows how to use people and religion. He now seeks forgiveness without real atonement. So is this guy a player or what?
2. He already has embarrassed himself as much as he can. It takes some politicians years to get to where Sanford is now.
First, the entire world knows that he wrote the following e-mail to his mistress: "The erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night's light."
Whoa! Slap some parental controls on this guy's e-mail account!
But, hey, it can't get any worse, right? Well, maybe. A number of South Carolinians are angry that Sanford apparently used tax dollars to visit his mistress last summer and disappeared from his job this summer to canoodle with her while law enforcement agencies were spending tax dollars to find out whether he was dead, kidnapped, etc. Sanford says he will pay some of the money back, but that may not end his problems. If you embezzle funds, for instance, get caught and then offer to give the money back, you can still end up wearing prison orange.
But assuming Sanford is not actually doing time during the 2012 primary season, he will have a strong selling point. He will be able to say: "You already know everything that is wrong with me. With the other guys, you are just guessing."
3. He knows how to fool all of the press some of the time and some of the press all of the time. On June 24, the morning that Sanford held a news conference to announce he was having an affair, The Washington Post ran an article that stated: "The governor, it should be noted, is quite happily married."
Whoops. Rewind. But that can happen. We journalists are limited in our abilities to know what is going on behind closed doors. What is most interesting, however and most encouraging for Sanford's future political career is that some journalists don't care about his lies and betrayal of public trust even after they learn of them.
A recent article in The New Republic addressed those who find fault with Sanford by saying: "Give it a rest. The man didn't commit murder here. He's in love." (How the writer knows that Sanford is in love and not in lust a condition far more common in middle-age men bored with their marriages she does not say.)
She gives another reason, however, to "give it a rest" when it comes to criticizing Sanford: "The woman involved, Maria, was not offensively younger than he."
Sanford is 49 and Maria Belen Chapur, his mistress, is 41. But what if she were 31? Would that change anything? And who gets to decide what "offensively younger" is? How about Sanford's wife, Jenny, who is 46? Not that we need to care about her feelings, after all. Or do we? Which leads us to our next point.
4. If he can get the missus in line, he is home free. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says so. Appearing on "Meet the Press With David Gregory" on Sunday, Graham said the people of South Carolina are "very disappointed in what he did as Mark the individual and his malfeasance at, at times, but they can reconcile the two only if, if Jenny and Mark can get back together. I think the people of South Carolina will give him a second chance."
So it is very important that his wife forgive him. But will she? "He was told in no uncertain terms not to see her," Jenny Sanford told The Associated Press recently, speaking of her husband and his mistress. "It's tragic."
Jenny Sanford said she discovered her husband's affair when she came across a letter he had written to his mistress. She said she was "shocked and obviously deeply hurt."
"I didn't think he had it in him," she said.
Which is another thing Mark Sanford has going for him: People are always underestimating him.