South Carolina GOP Gov. Mark Sanford’s disappearing act is reviving an often-whispered, if rarely written, question about presidential hopefuls: Just how strange is too strange?
It takes a unique person to run for the White House, but the dividing line between endearingly quirky and just downright odd can often separate winners from losers.
Sanford’s solo stroll on the Appalachian Trail falls short of the character questions raised by changing your name and fudging your age (Gary Hart) or accusing an incumbent president’s campaign of trying to disrupt your daughter’s wedding (Ross Perot).
But is the straight-laced Republican base ready for a candidate whose idea of relaxation is leaving his wife and kids on Father’s Day weekend to commune with nature?
As an introduction to the American public, Sanford’s walkabout is unquestionably damaging.
Yet past political figures have recovered from inauspicious national debuts — see, for example, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s droning speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
Where the Sanford story could be more fundamentally harmful to his political prospects is in what it suggests about his persona.
It’s one thing to be a millionaire who wears frayed slacks, as Sanford is known to do, but some veteran political strategists and observers believe this episode pushes him over the line between eccentricity and flat-out bizarre behavior.
“We’re talking about professional and personal issues of responsibility,” said longtime GOP ad man Alex Castellanos. “It’s not just that the governor of the state, charged with emergency management, disappears. But at the same time, on Father’s Day, he leaves his four kids and wife to go hiking and they don’t know where he is?”
Sanford is bumping up against a threshold in politics for what a state politician can get away with versus what voters will tolerate from presidential candidates.
As the political analyst Charlie Cook put it: “Governors can be quirky — presidents can’t be quirky.”
So it’s one thing, for example, for then-Gov. Jerry Brown to date the likes of rock star Linda Ronstadt and sleep on the floor of his apartment while governing California. But America wasn’t at the time — and probably still isn’t — ready for an ascetic bachelor in the White House.
In Sanford’s case, South Carolina politicos aren’t terribly surprised at this latest turn of events.
Beside the well-worn story of the governor cradling squealing piglets under his arms in the statehouse to make a point about pork-barrel spending, Sanford-did-what stories are legion in Columbia political circles.
They’re small incidents, but enough to raise eyebrows among the traditionalists who dominate the state’s political establishment.
As a member of Congress in the 1990s, he slept in his office to save money. Political insiders recount tales of his walking around barefoot in meetings in the state Capitol and even doing sit-ups at odd times. During his State of the State speech in 2006, he lost his train of thought and admitted he was daydreaming about a fishing trip with a pal.
Katon Dawson, the former state GOP chairman, recalled when Sanford disappeared from the Republican National Convention last year in St. Paul, Minn.
“He called me and said he was in back in South Carolina,” Dawson said. “He didn’t tell anybody.”
Dawson said he admired Sanford’s firm conservative principles but acknowledged that the soft-spoken governor was considerably different than the back-slapping good ole boy of southern political lore.
“He’s a long-distance marathon runner,” Dawson said. “A guy who enjoys the solitude and can take a lot of pain.”
While those traits can be helpful, it’s not exactly th typical profile for a national political hopeful — especially the solitude part.
“To run for president requires a steady diet of crackpot stew: start with borderline narcissism, add a bit of Messiah complex, stir in a dollop of paranoia and blend with delusions of grandeur,” explained longtime Democratic strategist Paul Begala.
So voters are already presented with individuals who are not, by most standards, normal.
Americans have demonstrated that they’ll tolerate marital indiscretions (again, see Clinton) or illicit substance use (see the past two presidents) in their commanders in chief. But weirdness they have a steady track record of rejecting.
Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter straddled the fine line, but they were more awkward and withdrawn than strange.
Hart, Perot, Brown, Bob Kerrey, Pat Robertson, Dennis Kucinich? None of them ever even won the nomination.
Their peculiarities took different forms — ranging from Kerrey as the more detached, post-modern type to Kucinich, who often appears as just plain flaky — but none passed the have-a-beer-with test.
Ed Rollins, who ran Perot’s ill-fated 1992 campaign for a time, recalled a conversation he had with the late Hamilton Jordan, another top strategist working for the Texas billionaire, after the two came to the conclusion that their candidate had no business controlling nuclear warheads.
Jordan, Rollins said, was worried that Perot might win.
“There is no way he is going to end up being president,” Rollins said he told Jordan. “This guy is nuts, and the country will find that out.”
No one is yet comparing Sanford to Perot, but as Rollins notes, voters have a discerning eye for the personality traits of their national politicians.
The good news for Sanford: It’s 2009, part of an era of short attention spans.
“Unless he buried a few bodies along the Appalachian Trail, I don’t think this will matter in the least,” said GOP strategist Stuart Stevens.
Sanford’s allies believe the governor is a victim of an irresistible summertime story and some in-state Republican adversaries who delight in making him look bad. They also emphasize that Sanford, who lost his father in high school, is a doting parent who spends considerable time with his four boys.
But narratives matter in politics and, with this move, he is playing into one of the most difficult to overcome — that of the odd duck.