EDITORIAL >> GOP looks to a savior
Within 10 days on either side of the solstice, three rising young stars in the Republican constellation have been sucked into a black hole. Each betrayed an all-too-human weakness, but in the end they were destroyed not by the weaknesses but by the hapless and undignified ways that they handled the public catharsis. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska will not be candidates for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, not serious ones anyway. Thus does Mike Huckabee’s stock rise exponentially, owing not to his own deeds but to providence, perhaps divine.
As congressmen, Ensign and Sanford had posed as moral avengers in the Clinton sex and impeachment scandal — both said he should resign for having had a dalliance with a White House intern. They were forced by cuckolded men last month to admit that they had had extended extramarital affairs, Ensign with a woman who was a campaign staffer and the wife of his chief legislative aide and Sanford with an Argentine woman whom he had met at a dance and with whom he had been trysting in furtive visits to New York and Buenos Aires.
Voters have been forgiving politicians for such human flaws for two centuries, but Ensign and Sanford compounded them.
After the husband of his mistress confronted him about the affair in 2008, Sen. Ensign doubled the woman’s salary and went out of his way to land good jobs for the husband and a son. That kept the affair quiet until the husband demanded more than the senator thought he could deliver, and the man went to Fox News with his story.
Sanford, on his last tryst with his Argentine girlfriend, lied to his family and his staff about hiking on the Appalachian Trail and then humiliated his family and the state with a mawkish and endless account of the romance with his soul mate, vaguely described trysts with other women and his desire to try and see if he could muster some love for his wife again.
Both men had said Bill Clinton was morally obliged to quit public office for having engaged in oral sex in the White House with a woman not his wife, but neither was willing to do it himself.
Sarah Palin did, but for her we have some sympathy. Her incoherent and irrational explanation for resigning only a little more than two years in office dismayed even her ardent supporters, but we found some grudging admiration for the woman for the first time. She did not demonstrate the resilience and toughness that she had boasted about and that are the requisites for a president, but we found the humanity of her act understandable and touching.
She can’t take it anymore — the strife and pressures of political contention — and she wants it to stop, for herself as well as for her family. Only a little more than a year in the first major public office of her life, a few bloggers and pundits had elevated her as a national figure in a party that sorely needed a fresh personality, and Sen. John McCain, who knew almost nothing about her or her politics, picked her as his vice presidential candidate on the hastiest impulse of modern times. All her human foibles — petty greed, vanity, a propensity to shade the truth just a little for political aggrandizement and an overabundance of family scandals — were cast on a national stage.
So for a year since that fateful week when she and McCain met at his Arizona hideaway, she has had to deal with rumors, ethical charges and investigations. In her first year as governor, she charged taxpayers for 312 days of per-diem travel expenses because she lived nearly all the time at her home in Wasilla rather than in the governor’s mansion 600 miles away in frozen Juneau. She could govern from her home as easily as from the capital. She also collected $44,000 in travel for her family. And she used the State Police to settle some family grievances.
In the scheme of things, they were penny-ante violations of the public trust. Mike Huckabee did far worse as governor of Arkansas, though he had 10 years. But as a national figure, Palin invited greater scrutiny and criticism. Minor issues for the governor of a remote state with few people became heated controversies for a national figure. In the wake of the Ted Stevens investigation and conviction came questions from her critics about the financing of a big home that she and her husband built near a sports palace she engineered while she was mayor of the suburban village. There were strange coincidences.
Then came the endless sniping from the party, particularly from the campaign staff of Sen. McCain that tried to blame his defeat in the presidential election on her vanity, contrariness and lack of knowledge of national issues.
The ordinary wizened politician — Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, John Kerry, John McCain and, yes, Mike Huckabee — can handle those pressures and thrive on them. But not many of us, and not Sarah Palin. Her 18-minute farewell (though she may not have intended it to be) was not impressive, but it was human.