- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

In some cultures, having mistresses is very much an accepted part of life. One thinks of the widow and mistress of Francois Mitterrand standing together at his funeral.

The issue of mistresses has arisen in my own social milieu. A grandfather of mine had more than one, much to the distress of his wife, my very conventionally moral, Bible-reading Baptist grandmother. There were children of these other connections, too, at least one of whom later befriended my grandmother and was much beloved of her as a friend.

Some members of the extended family eschewed social contact with these “others,” although that line of opposition was inevitably thinned with the passage of time. Eventually at least one child from outside the marriage was accepted into the fold and joined us at family reunions. She was by all accounts a fine woman, upstanding in her church and community.

Mistakes were made, but how were those mistakes addressed? My grandparents remained married until my grandmother’s death. And my grandfather made provisions in life and in his will for all his children.

My grandfather wept copiously at my grandmother’s funeral, loss perhaps mixed with remorse over past pains he had caused her. “I lost the best friend I ever had,” he sobbed. But the two old people had long since reconciled any differences and mellowed into the gentleness of their golden years and their final parting.

In fact, we need standards, even if we can’t all meet them and none of us can meet them all of the time. And I offer no apologies for the taking of mistresses. I never had one in the years of my own marriage, nor felt the need or desire to have one. But I’ve made my share of other errors.

Since the beginning of time, people have had standards and yet have fallen short of those standards. The true significance of a life lies in the long arc, and whether in the final analysis, given inevitable human failings, people learn their lessons, deal responsibly with the difficulties they have created and find redemption through both faith and love.

My grandfather was a devout, lifelong Presbyterian. I remember hearing him at his prayers in their country house at night. I only knew him as an elderly man, still full of spirit, fun and love of life, but changed into something quite different from the young man of his wayward amours.

In the final analysis, do we reject those who have done us so much good in life, who have many fine qualities, because of their errors? Do we reject also the innocent results and victims of those mistakes? I think we cannot.

Our acts have consequences, but we must hold ourselves accountable for how we deal with the consequences and the changed facts in our lives as well as the original act. Life inevitably offers an unfolding of events and challenges that calls us to successively exercise judgment, discretion and honor. That can go a long way toward redeeming the original failing.

Mistresses seem a social fixture in some cultures; in ours they are out of place and small allowance if any is made for having “another woman.” Still, it is an indiscretion that falls far short on the scale of recklessness of habitually patronizing prostitutes, inviting anonymous sexual encounters in public places or using one’s position of trust to pressure favors from subordinates or the underaged.

Still, accusations have been raised that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s weeklong absence visiting a mistress in Argentina without empowering others to act in his stead abdicated responsibility. (As a congressman, the conservative Republican had voted for three of the four articles of impeachment against President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter).

If Mr. Sanford resigns his post, the public moral standard will be upheld - a penalty exacted, but with the loss of a good servant to the state. His wife has found that in their relationship he has “earned a chance to resurrect” their marriage.

Perhaps a little public forbearance is in order as well.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times.