It's not easy or safe to be a moral enforcer, either by design or circumstance. It sets a person up for a mighty fall when he fails to live up to the rules he is supposed to live by. For some years now, the Christian Right has tried to make the rules for the rest of us — mostly in the realm of sexual behavior — and we have witnessed spectacular examples of the publicly pious hoisted on their own petards.
Police officers are not publicly pious by nature, but they are charged with publicly enforcing the law, including laws against driving under the influence. Most adults have probably gotten behind the wheel at one time or another when they were chemically impaired. If they were lucky, they arrived at their destination safely and without seeing any blue lights. If they did have an unfortunate encounter with the law, at the very least it was a huge expense and inconvenience. At worst, it was a life-changing experience.
I suspect that will be the outcome for two local police officers — one from Charleston, one from Mt. Pleasant — who were arrested recently on DUI charges. In most lines of work, they would have been able to walk away with their dignity and reputations tarnished, but their careers intact. But these gentlemen were in the business of arresting people for driving under the influence, and it is difficult to square that with the mark now on their records.
To my knowledge, Jenny Sanford never claimed to be an enforcer of laws or social norms, but she certainly flourishes under them. The ex-wife of Gov. Mark Sanford is a wealthy industrial heir, living in a multimillion-dollar beachfront house on Sullivan's Island, one of the most affluent communities in the nation. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but does she understand that her wealth, property value, social standing, and entire way of life is made possible through a complex skein of law, tradition, and regulation?
She demonstrated little understanding of self or society recently when she wrote a letter to the editor of The Post and Courier, complaining that she had been fined $1,040 for letting her dog run free in violation of the town's leash law. When the P&C looked into the matter more deeply with a story by Schuyler Kropf, it turned out that she had a record of leash law violations. Was this privileged scofflaw seeking sympathy?
Challenging law and custom to protect the victims of law and custom is an old and honorable tradition in this country. Was Sanford acting to protect her lab from the town's leash law? She didn't frame the issue that way. She cast herself as the victim.
Openly challenging law and custom as a political statement — in the manner of the Civil Rights Movement or Occupy Wall Street — is also an old and honorable tradition. This does not appear to be what Sanford was doing. She made no statement by word or deed that she was protesting the leash law. She just broke it repeatedly, then whined when the town slapped her with the maximum fine.
There is something about her behavior that reminds me of Thomas Ravenel, another conservative Republican with political ambitions who ran afoul of the law. Ravenel, you may remember, was the young state treasurer who was being groomed for the U.S. Senate before he was arrested on cocaine charges in 2007. He resigned his office and spent several months in federal prison.
Upon emerging from the big house, Ravenel announced widely and repeatedly that he is a libertarian and that personal behavior should not be subject to government regulation. Too bad he lacked the courage of these convictions (no pun intended) while he was in public office. At that time, of course, he was standing tall in the party of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. His sudden conversion to libertarianism seems less than sincere.
What I think we actually witnessed in the matter of Jenny Sanford and Thomas Ravenel is the case of two pampered members from two wealthy, powerful political families who believe the rules that the rest of us follow do not apply to them.
On a similar note, it's hard to say what the Laurens County Republican Party had in mind when it adopted a 28-point test to vet potential GOP candidates last week. Among the demands were that candidates pledge that they had never engaged in premarital or extramarital sex and that they would never view pornography. The party backed off its "Purity Pledge" after it drew national and international derision — yet another embarrassment for the GOP and the state that Jon Stewart calls America's whoopee cushion. It's just a shame the pledge was withdrawn before anyone could get caught violating it.