Mark Sanford and the Argentine Therapy Angle

07/05/2009 09:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Love in the Time of Psychoanalysis:

As South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was reported leaving his official residence late Friday to see his estranged wife and children, you had to hope that his wife, Jenny, had invited a good psychiatrist along for the holiday weekend - preferably one of the Argentine variety.

In all the cherchez- la-femme commentary about the governor's behavior and motives, there's one angle that's been overlooked. Analyze this: isn't it possible that part of what inspired the Savonarola of Sullivan's Island to risk his family, his political career and his reputation for an increasingly unhinged affair was less love with a "hot" Argentine lover, as some have suggested, and more an intoxication with the unashamedly navel-gazing culture of Argentina itself? Argentina, you may recall, is the psychoanalysis capital of the world, with one psychologist or psychiatrist for every 1000 residents, as the New York Times reported over a decade ago. Buenos Aires, where the governor spent Father's Day weekend with his holed up with his paramour, runs "neck and neck" with New York City in number of therapists, and the number is growing, the Times said. "Argentines are passionate about understanding themselves and making their lives better and happier through self-knowledge," the president of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association said in the Times' report.

After years at the top of South Carolina's political and social heap, the governor may have been feeling as dried out as an old cicada shell, in which condition Buenos Aires' unabashed and even florid attitude toward intense self-exploration may have felt like a wild amusement park ride, a balm to the soul, or both. Is there any city in the world better suited to host the mid-life crisis of a confused, upper class South Carolinian? Particularly a governor whose behavior, even before revelations of his yearlong affair and travels broke, displayed a certain lack of self-awareness. Sanford, remember, is the governor who demanded that his staff use both sides of their Post-It notes (requiring some time-devouring accordion pleating of paper, no doubt), and who theatrically rejected federal stimulus money intended to help his state's growing numbers of unemployed. This while he and his wife, a former Lazard Freres banker who hails from one of the wealthiest suburbs of Chicago, prepared to sell their house on exclusive Sullivan's Island in order to buy and restore a dream South Carolina plantation property.

And while we're on the subject of double standards, what about Jenny Sanford's stated intention to use the Sanford children as tactical weapons? Soon after her husband acknowledged that he had flouted her demand that he end his affair, Jenny Sanford announced that until the governor groveled sufficiently, he could forget about seeing his four sons. "You would think that a father who didn't have contact with his children, if he wanted those children, would toe the line a little bit..." she told the Associated Press coolly. "We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eye, and maintain my dignity, self-respect and my basic sense of right and wrong." This kind of sang-froid in the face of crushing humiliation, unusual among the growing ranks of cuckolded political wives, earned Sanford plaudits from the nation's female political commentators - "elegant and thoughtful," wrote one Washington Post columnist, echoing many.

But isn't that kind of hardball viewed as cruel and unusual when men employ it? After all, Anna Karenina didn't throw herself under an oncoming train only because her love affair with Count Vronsky was winding down. Rather, it was her furious husband's decision to deprive her of all contact with her young son that pushed her to madness and suicide. And, a century later, in a very different setting (devoid, thankfully of railroad tracks), wasn't it an actress ex-wife's habit of dangling their daughter like a puppet, according to Alec Baldwin partisans, that drove Baldwin to the point of intemperate cell-phone messages? (And, eventually, to write a book, A Promise to Ourselves, a critique of the judicial system's treatment of divorced fathers.)

All's fair, the poet said, and maybe Jenny Sanford's behavior is understandable when her self-absorbed husband, apparently having reignited a side of himself long extinguished, is behaving like a love-struck teenager. But if it's wrong for a man to use the children as a weapon in a marital struggle, it has to be wrong for a woman, too. Maybe Alec Baldwin was right.