Gail Collins: Voters might forgive, but they should never forget

It's kind of nice to have Mark Sanford back.

Perhaps not if you're from South Carolina. It is my strong impression that many South Carolinians are tired of their former governor, who so famously snuck off to Argentina for some extramarital recreation while his aides claimed he was camping on a national hiking path. A resident of Columbia, the state capital, told me he had been in Peru, on a train to the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu, when a local resident asked him where he hailed from.

At the mention of the words "South Carolina," the Peruvian nodded happily. "Appalachian Trail!" he cried.

After skulking around in political exile for several years, Sanford staged a sort of a comeback on Tuesday, winning the Republican nomination for his old House seat. It was a triumph of sorts, although one that only required defeating a former county legislator who did not live in the district, in a race that attracted the excited participation of about 10 percent of eligible citizens.

At his victory party, Sanford said the campaign had been "an amazing journey." Since the great disaster of 2009, Sanford has taken to mentioning "this journey called life" rather frequently. Perhaps, in a perfect world, a guy who got in trouble for jetting off to assignations on the taxpayers' dime would not focus quite so much on travel metaphors.


Sanford now will run against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a local businesswoman and sister of the comedian Stephen Colbert. She seems to be planning a deeply noncomedic campaign. But, still, hosting this race would be way more fun than being in Texas, wondering whether Rick Perry is going to run for a fourth — or is it fifth? — term.

Or in Tennessee, where lawmakers have just introduced bills to eliminate U.S. Senate primaries and let the state legislators pick the nominees. These new decision-makers would presumably include the members who recently expressed concern that the mop sink in a newly renovated Capitol men's lavatory might actually be a special foot-washing facility for Muslims.

Or New York City, where a Democratic state senator has just been indicted on a charge of trying to bribe his way into the Republican nomination for mayor. Through the alleged services of a Republican city councilman, who has represented himself as a member of both the Tea Party and a tribe of Theodish pagans, making him what The Village Voice called "the first openly elected heathen in the nation."

OK, the heathen part was pretty good. However, dwelling on this story will only cause New Yorkers to revisit the fact that three of the last four full-time majority leaders of the New York state Senate have wound up under felony indictment.

I'd rather keep track of Mark Sanford's evolution. So far, his spin strategy has been all about empathy and forgiveness. ("It's only really in our brokenness that we really begin to understand each other.") By the end of the primary, you had the impression that the key to a new bipartisan spirit in Washington would be having all the members of Congress tell each other about their affairs.

''There are too many people in politics who think that they know it all. And I think that they project this whole image of perfection," he told Jake Tapper on CNN.

Not a problem here.

Since we last had Sanford to kick around, he's been divorced and gotten engaged to the Argentinian squeeze. He virtually never mentions her and she barely got a shout-out on primary victory night. ("She completely surprised me," claimed Sanford, who told Tapper that he just turned the corner on his way into the ballroom and there she was.)


His ex-wife, Jenny, has written a book about her marriage, and now South Carolinians know that Sanford is not just fiscally conservative; he's also so personally cheap that he once gave his spouse a $25 used bicycle as a combined birthday-Christmas present. Also, there's the revelation that he excused some of his mysterious absences from home by saying he needed to go off and relieve the stress he felt due to thinning hair.

Sanford has always had a terrible case of chronic self-absorption. Now that he's talking about his feelings so much, it's turned into a creepy New Age egomania. It began with his post-Appalachian-Trail press conference, when he rambled on and on about his love life as if the assembled reporters were best pals who'd invited him out for a drink. ("It was interesting how this thing has gone down.")

More recently, according to New York magazine, he went to visit Jenny, who used to run his campaigns, and asked his still deeply estranged ex-spouse if she'd do another. "I could pay you this time," he added empathetically.

Her refusal was probably a surprise. Like the victory night fiancee.

Gail Collins is a columnist for the New York Times.

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