Vanity Affairs

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In every affair consider what precedes and what follows…
— Epictetus

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford isn’t a man’s man, nor is he a ladies’ man. He’s a very strange man, to be sure. But basically he’s a selfish man.

Everyone now knows that Sanford betrayed his wife and kids by conducting an affair with an Argentinean woman whose “tan lines” — according to an email he sent her — proved irresistible. Leaping over damage control into hero-worship, Sanford’s friend Cubby Culbertson — whom Sanford calls a “spiritual giant” — positioned his pal as “a man’s man” for having the courage to fess up to his sins: “Any man can fall. But it takes a real man to get up and honestly, from his heart, confess that he was wrong.”

Clubby Cubby isn’t all wrong — what he describes might be admirable if only it bore some resemblance to what the Governor actually did. Instead, Sanford followed the time-worn pathway of lying ever more elaborately — he was hiking the Appalachian Trail! He was motoring down the non-existent coastal roads of Argentina! — until the edifice of his dishonesty crumbled under its own bizarre weight. In other words, until he got caught.

Sanford’s melodramatic, sweeping apology could serve as the video dictionary definition of “How to make things worse when you get entangled in a web of lies.” Dripping with operatic self-pity –“I spent the past five days of my life crying in Argentina,” he said, “so I could come back and cry here” — he apologized to his wife, kids, assorted friends and colleagues, constituents and, unless I misunderstood, every sentient being in this and all parallel universes. (Note to the Governer: when you say “of my life,” it’s a narcissistic tell. They were the past five days of our lives too.)

Sanford’s apologia even included a meta-mea culpa when he expressed regret to his four sons not only for shattering their lives but also for breaking the news to them in front of millions of TV viewers, as if there were no alternative.

Any doubt that this was an affair of the ego was laid to rest when Sanford used the word “self” three times in one brief, nonsensical sentence: “The biggest self of self is indeed self.” Indeed.

In 1990 Mia Farrow, then in a long-term relationship with Woody Allen, who was 55, discovered nude pictures he’d taken of her adopted daughter, the then 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen had helped raise since she was seven. Woody acknowledged that he and Soon-Yi were having an affair but refused to publicly apologize for his appalling behavior. He simply offered the voracious media this brief tautology: “The heart wants what it wants.”

The implication is that because the heart wants something, any behavior in pursuit of that something, no matter what the collateral damage, is excusable. (Notice there’s no reference to a living, breathing person who can make choices.)

Thankfully, we have Woody’s art to console us when his actions don’t. At the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, a wonderful movie about, among other things, an extra-marital affair — in which Mia Farrow plays the role of the the victim (!) –Woody’s lovable character says, “The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle.”

In the quotidian world, couples come up with a variety of plans to deal with temptation. One apparently happily married couple I knew during the ’80s agreed that, since the husband’s sex drive was the stronger of the two, he was allowed to have meaningless sex outside the marriage. I never found out if he acted on it, but I did learn years later that the wife had had a passionate affair that ended the marriage.

My old friends the Brilliants — and no, I am not making up that name — had a better idea: they maintained, in writing, a “free fuck” list. The rule was that if either had the opportunity to sleep with someone on the list, they got a one-time-only free pass. No harm, no foul. The unwritten rule was that the listees had to be unattainable icons like Richard Gere and Michelle Pfeiffer, suitable only for fantasies.

And speaking of fantasies, Governor Sanford — taking a page from Rudy Blagojevich, who compared himself to Ghandi — upped the narcissistic ante several days after his demented press conference by likening himself to King David, who “fell mightily…but was able to pick up the pieces.”

But King David really did repent, deeply and for years, and wrote a bunch of hit songs in the process. I’m afraid the kindest thing that can be said about Sanford’s analogy would be to paraphrase Bill Clinton, another philanderer who lied through his teeth until he got caught: It depends on what your definition of “picking up the pieces” is.

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