- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009


“I’ve spent the last five days crying in Argentina,” he revealed, in presumably unconscious hommage to “Evita.”

The plot owed less to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber than to one of those Fox movies of the early 1940s in which some wholesome all-American type escapes the stress and strain of modern life by taking off for a quiet weekend in Latin America, and the next thing you know, the escapee is doing the rhumba on the floor of a Rio nightclub surrounded by Carmen Miranda and 200 gay caballeros prancing around waving giant bananas. In this case, the gentlemen of the South Carolina press were the befuddled caballeros and Mr. Sanford was bananas.

There is a rather large point to all this. As my National Review colleague Kathryn Jean Lopez observed, a sex scandal a week from the Republicans would guarantee us government health care by the fall - in the same way that the British Tories’ boundlessly versatile sexual predilections helped deliver the Tony Blair landslide of 1997. And once government health care is in place, the game is over: Socialized medicine redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state in all the wrong ways, and if you cross that bridge, it’s all but impossible to go back. So, if ever there was a season for Republican philanderers not to get caught, this summer is it.

At the press conference, the governor rationalized his unfaithfulness to his wife by saying that he needed to get out of “the bubble.” Tina Brown, proprietress of the Daily Beast, hooted in derision: “The bubble’s where you’re s’posed to be, Mark. That’s what all the rubber-chicken fund-raisers you put her through were for.”

A more basic question is: Why does the minimally empowered executive of a midsize state with no particular national prominence need to be in the bubble in the first place?

Evidently he does. Much of the charade involved in the scandal arose from the need to throw off his “security detail”: The Chevy Suburban pulling up outside the Governor’s Mansion; Mr. Sanford casually tossing his running shoes, a pair of green shorts and a sleeping bag in the back; turning off the GPS locator. Though staffers kept up his ghostwritten tweet of the day on Twitter, state senators revealed by Monday that they hadn’t heard from the governor since Thursday. And we can’t have that, can we?

Even Charles Krauthammer on Fox News professed to be concerned at a governor wandering off incommunicado. What would happen if there were a hurricane or a terrorist attack on South Carolina? Well, I would imagine that state agencies would muddle through to one degree of competence or another and that the physical presence of the governor would make zero difference - any more than, on the day, Gov. George Pataki made a difference to New York’s response to Sept. 11, 2001 (good) or Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to Louisiana’s response to Hurricane Katrina (abysmal and embarrassing, but deriving from the state’s broader political culture rather than anything Ms. Blanco did or didn’t do on the big day).

In a republic of limited government, the governor, two-thirds of the state legislature and the heads of every regulatory agency should be able to go “hiking the Appalachian Trail” for a lot longer than five days, and nobody should notice.

Instead, we have the governor of South Carolina resorting to subterfuge worthy of one of those Mitteleuropean operettas where the Ruritanian princess disguises herself as a scullery maid to leave the castle by the back gate for an assignation with a dashing if impoverished hussar garbed as a stable lad.

Perhaps some enterprising producer would like to option a Carolinian update of “Prince Bob,” the hit of the 1902 theatrical season in Budapest, in which the eponymous hero, a son of Queen Victoria’s, escapes the bubble of Buckingham Palace by getting out on the streets and wooing a cockney serving wench.

Of course, being nominally a republic of citizen-legislators, we have inaugurated the postmodern pseudo-breakout from the bubble, in which the president and his family sally forth to an ice-cream parlor in Alexandria, accompanied only by 200 of their most adoring press corps sycophants. These trips, the New York Times explained, enable the Obamas to “stay connected” with ordinary people, such as White House reporters.

The real bubble is a consequence of big government. The more the citizenry expects from the state, the more our political class will depend on ever-more-swollen Gulf emir-size retinues of staffers hovering at the elbow to steer you from one corner of the fishbowl to another 24/7.

“Why are politicians so weird?” a reader asked me after the Sanford press conference. Well, the majority of people willing to live like this will, almost by definition, be deeply weird. So big government more or less guarantees rule by creeps and misfits. It’s just a question of how well they disguise it.

Writing about Michael Jackson a few years ago, I suggested that today’s A-list celebs were the equivalent of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria or the loopier Ottoman sultans, the ones it wasn’t safe to leave alone with sharp implements. But, as Christopher Hitchens says, politics is show business for ugly people. A celebrified political culture inevitably will throw up its share of tatty karaoke versions of Britney and Jacko.

I was asked the other day about the difference between American and British sex scandals. In its heyday, Brit sex was about the action - Lord Lambton’s three-in-a-bed biracial sex romp; Harvey Proctor’s industrial-scale spanking of rent boys; Max Mosley’s Nazi bondage sessions, with a fine eye for historical accuracy and the orders barked out in surprisingly accurate German; Stephen Milligan’s accidental autoerotic asphyxiation while lying on a kitchen table wearing fishnet stockings. With the exception of the last ill-fated foray, there was an insouciance to these remarkably specialized peccadilloes.

By contrast, American sex scandals seem to be either minor campaign-finance infractions - the cheerless halfhearted affair with an aide - or, like Mr. Sanford’s pitiful tale (at least as recounted at his press conference and as confirmed by the e-mails), a glimpse of loneliness and social isolation. It’s as if in the end all they want is the chance to be sitting at the bar telling the gal with the nice smile, “My wife, and my staffers, and my security detail, and the Statehouse press corps, and the guy who writes my Twitter Tweet of the Day, don’t understand me.”

Small government, narrow responsibilities, part-time legislators and executives, a minimal number of aides, lots of days off: Let’s burst the bubble.

Mark Steyn is the author of the New York Times best-seller “America Alone.”

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