Empathy For the Devil

At New York Magazine, Jason Zengerle’s got a long article on Mark Sanford’s fall and rise, focusing on his very touchy relationship with his ex-wife Jenny, who could have easily preempted his comeback congressional campaign with one of her own, and could sink his today with a few tart words.

Reading the piece, I couldn’t help but marvel at what a relatively easy time Sanford has had recovering from such a spectacular implosion, spending his post-gubernatorial days “almost Thoreau-ing” on his family’s plantation, building a cottage to house his political memoranda, mulling life in the big picture and occasionally jetting off to New York or Miami or Buenos Aires to spend time with his lover (and eventually fiancee). If Sanford hit bottom or struggled through a Dark Night of the Soul, it was in considerable comfort. Nor did his first steps back involve community service or anything selfless at all:

After a year and a half, he left Coosaw [the plantation] and moved to an apartment in Charleston. He did some commercial-real-estate deals and joined a couple of corporate boards. He popped up on Fox News to offer some political analysis. Then last summer, he took the plunge and traveled to Tampa for the Republican National Convention.

But here’s the most revealing part of the story:

Empathy is a dominant theme of Sanford’s campaign, and it came up in my own conversations with him. “I would argue, and again I’m not recommending the curriculum to my worst enemy, but if one fails publicly at something, there’s a new level of empathy toward others that could not have been there before,” he told me.

When I asked Sanford how that new empathy had changed his views on public policy—whether it had made him, for instance, more inclined to support public-assistance programs he’s long denounced as unnecessary—he said it had not. “Convictions are convictions,” he explained. His empathy is for other public figures recovering from sex scandals and personal humiliations. “I used to open the paper and think, How did this person do that? Now it’s all, But by the grace of God go I.”

Unbelievable. Here’s this man who grew up on a plantation and married an heiress, and then presided over a state that is a living monument to inequality, proudly championing the most churlish and self-righteous instincts of its privileged classes. But his new empathy still extends no further than people just like him. And odds are he’s going to go back to Congress, where I suspect he will declare his rehabilitation complete.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.