Mark Sanford: Reality Television Superstar

08/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Scott Brown Freelance writer, journalist and performer

Remember Kid Nation? When it premiered, we couldn't decide what horrified us more: the idea of children abandoned in the desert to fend for themselves, or the fact that those children seemed to have imbibed, with mother's milk, the conventions of reality television--each and every one displayed an instinctive grasp of the showboating, solipsism, and self-mythologizing that reality television requires of its "stars."

Now we see there's another demographic vulnerable to reality TV's effects: Politicians.

Take the case of theoretically disgraced (yet clearly elated) South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Like Rod Blagojevich before him, Sanford seems eerily prepared for his moment of ignominy. Indeed, he's displayed far more poise and comfort on camera, and in the public eye, since news of his Argentine idilio broke. A politician with no particular passion for leadership (the Sanford revision of conservative ideology: the governor who governs least has more time to be the star of his own "tragic," "forbidden," presumably lambada-laced love story), he now seems to be attempting, awkwardly, to evolve into the shirtless telenovela Casanova he always imagined himself to be. He'll almost certainly fall short of that goal. But in the process, he seems to be finding his true calling: as a reality TV star.

It's what he was always destined to become--indeed, that he always wanted to become, whether he knew it or not. We see now that Sanford is a natural exhibitionist, that he's more than comfortable baring his soul (and, by implication, other "magnificent parts of himself") before the camera, that he takes a baldly erotic pleasure in unburdening himself of private "pain" in public, and that he fervently believes we all care enough to hang on his every word. Sadly, he's right. Dude is more Speidi than Speidi.

Of course we're riveted. Because Sanford is, I'm sorry to say, speaking our language--the language of VH1, Jon and Kate, and The Bachelor. Even a fairly sober-minded pundit, like David Brooks, is reduced to Abelard-and-Eloise maundering on the nature of love and passion. But this is the Magic-Eye effect of the reality genre: It confuses public and private concerns, magnifies the picayune and annihilates perspective. At bottom, no one should give a good God damn about the depth and richness of Sanford's passion--this isn't David and Bathsheba, and it sure as hell isn't Antony and Cleopatra. It's cesspit South Carolina politics, and Sanford is nothing but an unstable narcissist taking dictation from his demons and Danielle Steele. Madness in great ones must not unwatched go, of course. But their love poetry we should be able to do without.

Sure, the perfunctory apologies and rehearsed head-hanging and on-camera standups with the spouse and weepy soliloquys of shame--these aren't exactly things to celebrate. But we're accustomed. They're hoary, whore-y conventions, and, on some level, appropriately and proportionately absurd. The Sanford-style exit interview, on the other hand--with its sultry, practically torchlit atmospherics--must be rejected, here and now. I don't ask for "reality" in my political leaders. I don't wish to meet the actual person, and I certainly don't want to meet the dramatized, reenacted version. I expect an elected representative to represent, to be more than merely himself. I expect him to be an amplification device for a great many people. The more unknowable the individual, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Politics absolutely should, absolutely must mystify and obscure the actual person--because, in office, that person is no longer merely a person. "Authenticity" is bunk: I don't want to be represented by anyone who glories in being merely himself. This is the polar opposite of reality TV, which is renowned chiefly for its diminishing effect, for its ability to reduce fame to amateur pornography. That's where Sanford is headed, where all exhibitionists are headed, once unleashed. We need to draw a line.

Otherwise, mark my words, we'll swiftly descend into politics-as-Craigslist personal ad--and Sanford seems mere minutes away from posting NSFW pictures of his "magnificent parts." He must not be encouraged. Remember, politicians, like children, are highly impressionable, and susceptible to attention, even if it's negative. It's always an awkward moment when a toddler enters his "flasher" phase. Sometimes the best we can do is simply look away.