As a student of the media and, therefore, an inveterate scandalologist, I am fascinated by the new direction which the Mark Sanford scandal has taken. Normally, the media’s salivation at any hint of hidden salaciousness is as reliable as that of Pavlov’s dogs, so it was hardly surprising that the initial reaction to Governor Sanford’s press conference last week in which he confessed to his misdeeds was treated like any other sex scandal. But suddenly, it seems, the penny has dropped. Two separate articles, one by Christina Nehring, in The New Republic online called "In Defense of Mark Sanford" and one in today’s Washington Post "Style" section by Neely Tucker entitled "A Scandal Beyond Sex" cry out, in effect: Hey, wait a minute. This guy’s in love.
Ms Nehring, who has just written a much-noticed book she calls A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, writes that
Governor Sanford of South Carolina had what would, under ordinary circumstances, be considered an ideal romantic relationship in the 21st century. Slow to evolve and based on proven mutual friendship and respect, it was eight years in the making. The woman involved, Maria, was not offensively younger than he. She was not his intern, his boss, his student, his financial contributor. He was hardly using her for sex — indeed, he had not spent that much time in her company, as they lived on different continents. Nor was he deceiving her: He told her his family obligations, his pleasures, his fears. She even told him of the men trying to seduce her. In fact, they told each other so much (and slept with each other so little) that they left a huge paper trail — or cyber trail, rather — for their enemies to scrutinize. More hedonistic pairs leave far less ample evidence for their sins.
Mr Tucker of the Post is even more admiring: "Their electronic epistles," he writes of the two love-birds, "are startling and something rarely seen anymore: adult love letters."
They are possessed of maturity, passion, angst and the recognition that they are devolving into an adulterous relationship that both acknowledge is wrong and yet seem helpless to stop. They make you stop what you''re doing and wonder if you are as alive as the people writing these across continents to each other. They make you vaguely embarrassed to have read them; as if, after the funeral, you discovered love letters from your beloved aunt Polly to the church deacon, and you read them all before you could stop.
I suppose it’s something to hear the media confess to even vague embarrassment about reading other people’s intimate communications, but the comparison of this nationwide — if not worldwide — media blitz to the discovery of a family secret speaks volumes. At least aunt Polly doesn’t have to worry posthumously about having her intimate secrets published on the front page of The Washington Post. The idea that the media might have any duty to respect Governor Sanford’s privacy in a matter of love occurs to Mr Tucker no more than it does to any of the more coarse-grained and prurient-minded scandal-mongers of his trade.
Could this be because, in his mind, the media’s craving for narrative has already turned this private event in a public life into a fictional romance without his even realizing it? Abelard and Eloise, Tristan und Isolde, Lancelot and Guenevere, Romeo and Juliet — now Mark and Maria are lovers for the ages in just the same way. This must be why Mr Tucker hints that he sees his own reflection in the Sanfordian mirror, writing that the passionate e-mails "make you stop what you’re doing and wonder if you are as alive as the people writing these across continents to each other." Actually, I don’t wonder this about me but I do wonder it about him. If I were Mrs Tucker, if there is a Mrs Tucker, reading this over the breakfast waffles, I would be stirring uneasily in my seat right about now.
Mark and Maria, in other words, have become an illustration not only of the speed at which life becomes fictionalized in the media but also of the reason that it does, which is the narcissistic tendency of the times to see ourselves in everything around us and especially in works of fiction that seem to offer insights into our own lives. I remember being struck by reading in David Maraniss’s biography of Bill Clinton that our forty-second president’s reaction to a production of King Lear when he was at Oxford was to see it as a ratification of his own desire to go into politics! Than that, it is hard to imagine it possible to be more self-absorbed, but I feel sure we are today trying the limits of self-absorption to an extent that might even make Bill Clinton gasp with astonishment.
One of my favorite poems in Consumed, the recently published volume of verse by my friend and former pupil, David Hill, is titled "Romeo and Juliet — free delivery" and it goes like this:
He never knew a finer hour, that priest!
It went like clockwork. We hopped on a bus —
Me and my girl (officially deceased) —
And fled to Mantua. Now look at us.
A pizzeria and three grown-up kids,
A few more lines, some extra pounds of flesh.
A marriage that has sometimes hit the skids,
A romance where at least the topping’s fresh.
And if I had my time again — who knows?
Sometimes I wish fair Rosaline would call,
Or wish I’d had the courage to propose
To her. It took the madness of that ball
To loosen me — the night I met my wife.
I worry too much. Story of my life.
There, in a nutshell, is what the therapeutic culture has done to romance and to literature in general in our time. All such magical fictions have lost their magic by becoming instead just more fascinating facts about our fascinating selves, something for us to trot out modestly when — the day is bound to come — we’re interviewed on TV about our fascinating lives. Now that the media’s indignation over George W. Bush has given way to their indignity over Barack Obama, it seems that even scandal ought to be about us.