I thought this Dickerson piece in Slate about Sanford was perfect:
Mark Sanford is no longer missing, but he’s obviously lost. The South Carolina governor’s press conference was excruciating: apology, followed by self-flagellation, followed by apology. It was like watching a man light himself on fire. I thought about his kids mustering up the courage to watch it on YouTube some day. I thought about his wife having to suffer the anger and the loss. Perhaps even worse, she’s also going to have to endure the armies of pity and the people like me trying to guess at what her feelings are.***
I’m not offering Sanford’s humanity as an excuse. I’m just marveling at how few people stopped for a moment to even nod to it. My thoughtful colleague William Saletan and Andrew Sullivan were exceptions. Maybe there are others. Maybe people expressed these views in private conversations. But in the e-mails and Twitter entries and blog posts I read in the aftermath, Sanford’s human ruin was greeted with what felt like antiseptic glee. The pain he’s caused, the hypocrisies he’s engaged in, seemed like license to deny him any humanity at all.
Sanford’s fumbling efforts to explain how he’s tried to rescue himself with his faith offered some people an opportunity to make fun of his religion, as if a confused, lost, flawed person were the right spokesman for anything. People tend to think the most awful thing about a person is the most true thing. They also apparently think it’s the most true thing about his or her associations. So an e-mail arrived asking, “[I]s there any Republican not sleeping around?” Maybe Sanford should have been a presidential candidate. He apparently represents an entire party and an entire religion.
What Mark Sanford seemed to be trying to say is that he screwed up, in the biggest possible way, because he lost his bearings. He lost his self-control. He was indulgent. He forgot that there were other humans in the world. Yet in the constant flow of abuse, joke-making, and grand conclusions about his failings, it seemed everyone having a good time pointing at his self-indulgence was also engaging in a form of it.
I’m not trying to be a scold, because I know I can be as bad as anyone when it comes to the schadenfreude. And I know that Sanford has worked to marginalize a number of people who only want to be able to be married. But unlike when I watched Ensign last week and saw a tough politico with no soul doing whatever he could to just salvage his career, when I watched Sanford yesterday, I saw a confused, and lost, and hurting person. I can’t explain what the difference between the two cases, but there was something genuine about Sanford, and I feel bad for the guy, even though he brought it all on himself.