Before we push the story about Governor Mark Sanford's "hiking the Appalachian Trail" (i.e. seeing his lover in Buenos Aires) entirely out of mind, I'd like to call attention to some statistics that appeared on yesterday's op-ed page of The New York Times. There, courtesy of Charles M. Blow, we learned that the three states with the highest teenage birthrates in the country are Mississippi, Texas and Arizona. The three states with the highest number of online subscriptions to pornographic sites are Utah, Alaska and Mississippi. Eight of the ten states with the highest divorce rates are Arkansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Idaho, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia.
What do all these states have in common? Yes, they are all "red states" that went for John McCain. The people preaching to us about what to do in our private lives and voting for politicians who espouse "traditional values" seem curiously incapable of applying these standards to themselves.
But, hypocrisy aside, my first thought when I heard the news about Sanford was the same thought I always have when a story breaks about a politician's personal life: namely, so what? Why is it our business to track who a politician is sleeping with so long as no laws have been broken? Why should press conferences be wasted on such matters? Sanford's case was an exception because he disappeared for five days, a matter of public significance, some would argue. Fair enough. But as a friend of mine pointed out a few hours after the story about his escapade to Argentina broke, the inevitable result of showering attention on such matters is to humiliate the individuals involved and to reinforce the puritanical strain in our culture. It's somehow newsworthy that (shock!) a public figure has been unfaithful to his or her partner, that a marriage may be unraveling, that lies have been told.
The underlying assumption is that it actually is our business to know these things and that any public figure who strays from the norm has serious, potentially unpardonable character flaws. Let's retire this assumption and heed the words of Governor Sanford's lover, who, in a letter sent to an Argentine television station, wrote, "I won't speak about my private life as it just belongs to me. It has already been made too public during these last days, bringing to me even more pain."