Everyone needs a little break now and then, so my wife and I headed for some quiet time in beautiful Fairhope, Ala., on the east shore of Mobile Bay. But even here it's hard to escape the seamy politics I have been writing about for years in South Carolina.
As if taking a cue from former Gov. Mark Sanford, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has been caught in a shabby, shameless — hmm — relationship with a staff member some 30 years his junior. Bentley swears there has been nothing improper between himself and 43-year-old Rebekah Caldwell Mason, but this much we know. His wife of 50 years divorced the 74-year-old governor last year and moved out of the Governor's Mansion.
Mason accompanied Bentley — arm-in-arm — to a formal dinner for the Governors Association at the White House in February, where the two were introduced to the president and First Lady. They attended the Republican Governors Association confab in Las Vegas in January, where they took in a Celine Dion concert and the governor tried to dismiss his security detail in order to gain some personal time with Mason.
Then in March, audio tapes were made public of a phone conversation between Bentley and Mason in which Alabama's luv gov declares his ardor for his senior advisor for political affairs (amusingly enough), including fond references to her breasts and buttocks. Since then the Governor's Office has been in full retreat and disarray. Mason resigned her position immediately, though her husband and the father of her three children retains his job as head of the Governor's Office of Faith-based Initiatives. At least one bill of impeachment has been filed, with Bentley declaring that he has done nothing wrong and will not resign.
That was not good enough for the First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, where the Bentley and Mason families were members and Bentley was a deacon. The amorous couple were removed from the rolls.
Bentley has made religiosity and family values a centerpiece of his political persona, seeming to suggest in one address that all non-Christian Alabamians should come to Jesus so that he may call them his "brothers" and "sisters."
He follows the well-worn trail of South Carolina's Gov. Mark Sanford and Mississippi's own luv gov Kirk Fordice, another family values Republican who was caught in an affair which ended his marriage in the 1990s.
There is nothing new or surprising in any of this misbehavior. There have been political sex scandals at least since the story of King David in the Old Testament. What is relatively new is that the Republican Party has embraced white evangelicals as their base, along with their repressive, punitive attitudes toward sex. At least, they have embraced them publicly.
For the past 40 years we have seen politicians — especially Republicans — espousing "family values," parading their wives and children around like stage props in their campaigns and public appearances, denouncing gays and same-sex marriage with the kind of rage they used to reserve for communists, waging their ceaseless war on a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices, and impeaching President Bill Clinton after trapping him in an extramarital affair with an intern.
None was more shameless than Mark Sanford, who as a U.S. House member in 1999 voted to impeach Clinton. Sanford also took his second oath of office as governor in 2007 on the Statehouse steps with his wife and four children arrayed behind, his youngest son holding the Bible on which his daddy placed his hand. Two years later Sanford abandoned his office, his wife, and his children to be with his mistress in Argentina.
Today, there is a movement in South Carolina and other red states — and presidential candidate Ted Cruz has jumped on the bandwagon — to deny transgender people access to bathrooms of their gender identity. As local secular activist Herb Silverman wrote recently on Huffington Post, "There are zero recorded instances of harassment by transgender people in bathrooms. However, because there are at least three recorded instances of Republican politicians being arrested for lewd behavior in public restrooms, perhaps we should bar male Republican politicians from using public restrooms."
As for Alabama's Republican legislature, they remain vigilant in their crusade to protect the sanctity of marriage and family. One bill before the salons is designed to spare county clerks the trauma of signing a same-sex wedding license. It would do away with marriage licenses altogether and require all couples — opposite-sex and same-sex — to hire a lawyer and enter a civil marriage contract. And only last month the U.S. Supreme Court struck down, on an 8-0 vote, Alabama's law barring gay couples from adopting children.
Despite all that, Alabama's greatest threat to marriage and family remains in the Governor's Mansion.