E-mails suggest political power linked to affairs of the heart

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E-mails between state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom and his apparent mistress Kelly Payne, herself a GOP primary candidate for the state’s education superintendent, tell us more about our state’s political leaders than we want to know, including suggestions that some guy named “André” is a nag.

Already separated from his wife, Eckstrom wrote to Payne last November of his vision for their still clandestine relationship — a Hollywood ending only Aaron Sorkin could write.

“For two years I dreamed of you being with me in Washington and other places, meeting and dining with government leaders like I did tonight,” Eckstrom wrote in one of the personal e-mails obtained by The State. “It’ll take a long time to force that dream from my mind. Maybe I’ll never want it out. You’d have been a natural.”

Of all the visions one can imagine for a dream date, a business dinner usually isn’t one of them. The thrill of danger, of doing something you shouldn’t, is a part of what draws people into affairs. But this e-mail suggests that something else was also driving this romance for Eckstrom — he was looking for a woman who could appreciate his political power.

Eckstrom’s love letters followed the release of Gov. Mark Sanford’s pained prose to his Argentinian mistress, Maria Belen Chapur. One note included a long diatribe about Sanford’s power (ironically amassed with the indispensable help of his wife).

In an e-mail professing his love, Sanford went on to tell Chapur how busy he was, with meetings in New York and a National Governor’s Conference in Philadelphia, before taking the family on a vacation through Asia on a “whirlwind tour” and on to the Bahamas — a trip he called “the last break of the summer.” Then, it was off to Aspen, Colo., for a weekend with GOP presidential candidate John McCain, “which has kicked up the whole VP talk all over again in the press back home.

“There are but 50 governors in my country and, outside of the top spot, this is as high as you can go in the area I have invested the last 15 years of my life,” he said.

Again, the power is entwined with amour. Sanford goes on, “My getting here came as no small measure because I had that foundation of love and support so critical to getting up in the morning and feeling you could give and risk because you already had a full tank of love in the emotional bank account.”

This seeming romanticism of political office is about ego and arrogance, says David Mann, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. But, ego is important.

“You’ve got to feel confident in yourself to run for public office,” Mann says.

But the ego and arrogance sometimes mask self-esteem issues, the kind where you lament your power in love letters to someone who is not your wife.

“The power artificially pumps them up,” says Mann. “The last person I want in office is someone who says, ‘I like the power.’”

In a famous exchange between interviewer David Frost and Richard Nixon, Frost asked if Nixon thought a president can do something illegal.

“Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” Nixon said.

Eckstrom and Sanford seem to have a similar expectation that their power would sustain them — that their political fortunes would persevere.

And it’s that expectation that leads a presidential candidate like John Edwards to carry on an affair with his videographer throughout his campaign and makes him reckless enough to father a child with her.

It’s what leads Sen. John Ensign to get in bed with a staffer, going so far as to get her son hired by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But politics is a fickle mistress, and she has dumped many a man for far less.

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