The governor has been found. Governor Sanford was not, it turns out, hiking the Appalachian Trail. He was in Buenos Aires with “Maria,” a woman who is not his wife or the mother of his four sons. It is a familiar, human ending to a grim story. Except for the B.A. part. Great town, as Sanford himself pointed out.
Is there any reason to dwell on the details? We’ve basically got it. Marriage over, career destroyed, family shaken by scandal and lies. Soon enough the facts will retreat to the private sphere, where they mostly belong, and the cameras will be redeployed. The 24-hour news beast will consume another public figure’s private pain.
I do find myself wanting to linger, if only briefly, on one part of this story. Sanford’s staff issued a series of clumsy, misleading statements (and Tweets) on the governor’s trip that culminated in an attempt to convince us that what we were observing wasn’t actually real. No, Sanford had not disappeared for six days under highly unusual, if not unprecedented circumstances for an acting governor. He was hiking.
What’s happening inside an organization that lies aggressively to its stakeholders? State Senator John Land described the staff as “dishonest, secretive and bizarre,” and now we know why. They were taking one for the team, covering up for the boss man, and it wasn’t the first time. Manipulation was in the organization’s DNA, and they came by it honestly. They were taking signals from the top on how to divert people from the truth and its consequences. The press “strategy” was likely not even up for debate. Lie ourselves out of this one? Why stop now?
Here’s the issue. The reason we care about the private lives of our public leaders is not that they might hurt themselves or the people who love them. We regret these costs on a basic human level, but the players are strangers to us, all of them, and this is not the source of the outrage.
We care about “Maria” because the absence of integrity is a highly toxic human condition. It cannot be contained to one part of our lives. It infects everything we touch, including the organizations around us that react intuitively to our structural weakness. At best, lying about who we are destroys our ability to lead. At worst, it puts institutions at risk of rotting from the inside out, as the behavior of Sanford’s staff so vividly illustrates. These are the soldiers on the front lines of our democracy, and they internalized the governor’s arrogance and duplicity.
The good news is that the presence of integrity is even more powerful. The governor may think that his career is over, but the world just gave him the gift of intolerance for the small, broken version of him that we’d been getting. A bigger version may exist, someone with the ability to effect real change, and now we have a chance of someday meeting him. By my measure, Mark Sanford may just be getting started.