Governor Sanford and passionate Palmetto politics

Caller to a talk show on S.C. Public Radio on Friday morning, on Gov. Mark Sanford’s recent admission of an extramarital affair: “I guess Republicans need to re-define marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman and his mistress.”

OK, for nearly two years I’ve tried to keep this a non-partisan blog, so let me quickly add that I make no claims for the moral superiority of Democrats over Republicans (see Bill Clinton and John Edwards). It seems to me that the difference in the two parties is that the Democrats don’t make those claims either, but that’s for another day. I just thought the comment was funny.

I’m a South Carolina native who also started a long association with newspapers there, so I’ve been interested in my home state’s history and politics for a long time. And the governor’s recent escapade, in which he mysteriously disappeared for several days before resurfacing to admit an affair with an Argentinian woman, is just another colorful chapter in the Palmetto State’s political annals.

Here’s a little history, filled with violence, a little sex and other mischief:

May 22, 1856: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks brutally beats abolitionist Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane as Sumner sits at his desk in the U.S. Senate chamber. Brooks was angry about a speech Sumner had given three days earlier in which he had criticized S.C. Senator Andrew Butler, a relative of Brooks. It takes Sumner three years to recover.

When our pols weren’t pummeling Yankees, they were also beating or shooting fellow South Carolinians.

Feb. 22, 1902: U.S. Senators Benjamin Tillman and John McLaurin bruised and bloodied each other in a fist fight on the Senate floor. The South Carolina senators were former allies who were at odds about a Phillipine tariff bill. (Sounds like something to fight over, right?) Anyway, the two had exchanged allegations of corruption against each other. The Senate holds both “in contempt,” and passes some rules encouraging members to get along.

Jan. 15, 1903: South Carolina Lt. Gov. James Tillman (Ben’s brother) fatally shoots Narciso Gonzales, co-founder of The State newspaper, in downtown Columbia in broad daylight. Tillman was angered over the paper’s criticism of his brother. A jury acquits him on a shaky self-defense claim.

Of course, all this was a long time ago, when Old South notions of settling personal disputes personally were still in vogue. But tempers do still flare.

I went to work at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach in the summer of 1977, so I just missed the last great South Carolina political brawl that I know of. At the reknowned Galivants Ferry Stump Meeting in Horry County in 1976, State Senator James P. Stevens of Loris ended up rolling around in the dirt with a political rival whose name escapes me. It was the end of an argument over Stevens’ record in a re-election campaign that Stevens lost.

And, sadly, I was gone from the area before one of the state’s most notorious modern political scandals broke late in 1979, 6th Distict Congressman John Jenrette’s involvement in “Abscam.” It was a sting operation in which a variety of public officials were videotaped in Washington taking bribes to help out a — as it turned out — non-existent Arab sheik.

“I’ve got larceny in my heart,” Jenrette, from North Myrtle Beach, was captured saying on one of the videotapes with the FBI undercover operatives. He had something else in his heart at other times, according to now ex-wife Rita, who recounted in her memoir a night in which they had sex behind a pillar on the Capitol steps.

The sexual behavior of a South Carolina politician made news again early in 2005 when Essie May Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired teacher in Los Angeles, revealed something that had been rumored in the state for years –that she was the daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. (The senator died in 2003 at age 100.) Her mother, who was black, was a maid for the Thurmond family in the 1920s, when she became pregnant at age 15 by the future senator.

And now Sanford, who apparently had quite a thing for the woman he met on a business trip to Argentina a few years ago. (His e-mails to her read like a bad romance novel.) Sanford’s wife, Jenny, who has been very “Steel Magnolia”-ish in this whole business — said that he ignored her wishes that he not take the recent trip. See this New York Times story.

There’s plenty of analysis of the politics and the psychology of all this elsewhere. I’ll just close with a couple of notes on some of the comments I’ve read at the end of some of the stories I’ve seen on news websites. There are two strains of media criticism I’ve seen there that deserve refuting.

(1) “If this had happened to a Democrat, the liberal media would have ignored it.” Nope. It’s bad for business for media people to ignore news, whether it happens to Republicans or Democrats. This especially goes for political sex scandals. See, well, Bill Clinton and John Edwards, whose dalliances have been well-documented by the mainstream media.

(2) “The media build up Democratic presidential candidates and try to tear down Republican candidates.” Most media people I know have a trait that tends to irritate partisans of any kind when there’s bad stuff available about the other side — they try to wait to make sure there’s something to it before they print it or air it. (If you believe otherwise, you’re wrong.)

Folks on the left have complained for years that former President George H.W. Bush was involved in an affair that the media knew about but wouldn’t report. North Carolina papers came in for some criticism from conservative readers for what was seen as their foot-dragging on the Edwards story, and I understand that The State has had the Sanford e-mails for months. If there’s a bias in any of that, it seems like it’s toward caution.

Anyway, I think the people hurt most by all this are the ones who didn’t choose the spotlight — the Sanfords’ four sons. That’s why I hope that the Sanfords can play out the purely personal part of all this away from the attention of the news media. The rest is fair game for coverage.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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