Steve Chapman

By now, it's clear that Mark Sanford has about as much of a future in politics as he does in sumo wrestling. His confession of adultery was all it took to demolish any hopes he had of running for president -- and perhaps even to force him to step down as governor of South Carolina. But why?

After all, we've had presidents who are revered by posterity despite being unreliable husbands. Hardly anyone even remembers now that Franklin Roosevelt had a mistress, that Dwight Eisenhower may have had one, or that John Kennedy had several.

In the intervening decades, we've also become far more aware of just how common such behavior is among officeholders -- not only Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani but lesser-known mayors, governors, congressmen and water commissioners. Nowadays, finding that a politician breached his marital vows is about as surprising as learning that a professional athlete failed a drug test. If Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi can overcome their guilt, why not Sanford?

Other politicians have survived -- most conspicuously our 42nd president. In fact, you'd think the Monica Lewinsky scandal would have settled the issue once and for all. Democrats found themselves excusing Clinton's conduct, and Republicans who condemned it wound up on the losing side in both public opinion and the impeachment battle.

When it was over, Clinton left office with a 65 percent approval rating. Trust him with your daughter? Not a chance. But your economy? Sure.

George W. Bush, by contrast, finished his term with an approval rating of 22 percent. Trust him with your daughter? Sure. But keep him away from the economy! Both parties could have drawn the same conclusion: Voters have more important things to worry about than their leaders' sex lives.

Yet here we are again, disqualifying a possible White House aspirant because he couldn't keep his pants on. After two decades of high-level political sex scandals, we seem to have reached a consensus that marital fidelity is actually pretty important in a leader. Given the choice, we would prefer peace and prosperity to presidential rectitude. But we really want all three, and we think we can have them.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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