Ike Washington is a made up character but Mark Sanford – U.S. Congressman Mark Sanford – has a story that is stranger than fiction.
Yet the two are connected. Both commit a grievous wrong that begins in secret and ends in disgrace. Discovered, pilloried and ultimately forgiven, both realize they cannot move on until they are able to forgive themselves.
Sanford: One Imperfect Man
Sanford arrived in Washington as a freshman congressman in 1995. He served until 2001, when he quit to run for governor. I covered him closely all six years as D.C. correspondent for the paper in Charleston, S.C.
Sanford was a colorful but mostly ineffective congressman. He slept in his office to save taxpayer dollars (and get good PR), cast symbolic votes against spending bills that angered party leaders and folks back home, and pulled an occasional rogue move, like slipping into Cuba unannounced to get a feel for how U.S. sanctions were impacting real people.
In June 2009, reporters found out the governor, husband and father of four was not “hiking the Appalachian trail,” as his staff had claimed, but instead romancing an Argentine woman to whom he is now engaged. Thanks to Sanford, “hiking the Appalachian trail” will forever summon images of a different sort of adventure.
Darkness followed. Jenny Sanford divorced him, and Sanford had to survive an impeachment move before leaving office in 2011. At some point, he decided to run for his old congressional seat, which had opened when the incumbent was tapped to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by former Sen. Jim DeMint.
Regardless of how friends or voters felt, Sanford said that to move forward, he had to find a way to forgive himself. “A serious time in the valley,” he told me recently. “Coming to terms with it personally was one of the first keys.”
In his May 7 victory speech, Sanford told supporters, “I am one imperfect man saved by God’s grace.”
Washington: Light at the End
Like Sanford, my fictional character Ike Washington struggles to believe in a God of second chances.
Bootlicker takes place in 1992, the year South Carolina actually elected its first black congressman since the Civil War. I covered the election, won by Rep. Jim Clyburn, who still holds the seat. Ike is not intended to represent Clyburn; the only similarity is that Ike is the leading contender for the historic seat.
In the story, Ike is quietly tied to Lander McCauley, an old-time senator with a violent, racist past. As a teen, Ike stumbles on then-Judge McCauley leading a Klan lynching. McCauley’s men catch him and present a choice: join the dead man or help the judge win black support so he can advance politically. It was McCauley’s decision to enlist an undercover liaison in black South Carolina, someone he could personally train and control. Fate delivers Ike.
Terrified, young Ike agrees. One year turns into five and five turn into 20. Ike becomes a power in his own right, McCauley’s man behind the scenes. The days of forcing him to cooperate are long forgotten. But there is an ever-present guilt about his path to power, plus the name critics use behind his back: Bootlicker.
The Hard Road Back
As in Sanford’s case, a reporter breaks the story. Family, friends and voters make their judgments. Ike, like Sanford, winds up alone with his thoughts.
In the end, the tie between Sanford and Ike Washington is about choices and character. It’s about guilt and the tricky path to redemption. And it may also be about American voters, who at least in one congressional district, decided that down is not out, and those willing to accept responsibility, make changes and serve as living examples, can come back and try again.
Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent. Steve is a blogger for JenningsWire.