Cover Story: Why do politicians cheat?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Pressure mounting for SC Gov. Mark Sanford to resign.  It comes as questions are being raised over marital infidelity among America's leaders.

Mark Sanford touted his family, he seemed to have the picture perfect life, what would make a man like this cheat?

Only Sanford knows of course, but many have studied the issue of infidelity.

Some believe it's the result of a deep tension between the country's Puritanic moral and religious code going all the way back to the Puritans and frontier lawlessness that goes back to the Wild West.

The list is long and illustrious.  Republicans and Democrats.

Presidents.. Senators.. Governors and Mayors.

You'd think they'd learn their lesson.. but it keeps happening.

Is there something about the job that causes them to cheat?  Dr. Rosemarie Tong, the Director of UNC Charlotte's Ethics Center has heard one theory.

She says, "People in this kind of office because they're so high pressure.. because they have to be so quick on their feet kinda live off the adrenaline of risk taking. There's something in that risk taking that prompts them to step over the line."

When an ordinary person she says less sure of himself wouldn't consider taking the risk.

Others say it's narcissism.. (former North Carolina Senator John Edwards said as much in his mea culpa..)

That which leads someone to run for office.. ego and ambition.. goes amuck.

Self-centeredness, psychologists say takes over and politicians mainly men think the rules don't apply to them..

Problem is as Mark Sanford has found you don't just betray a family trust.. you betray the public as well.

Sanford confidante Tom Davis.

He says, "The next few days will tell whether Gov. Sanford is sincere in taking responsibility for his actions and the pain he has caused people."

Should what happens behind closed doors even matter?  Does cheating on your spouse automatically make you a bad leader?

"Cheating on your spouse is not a test one way or another on your quality to be a good governor."

That's Roy Clark with the Poynter Institute.. a school for journalists.

He pointed to FDR, JFK and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  All strugged with infidelity but did great things for the country.

Clark believes it's a myth.. a lie.. to think there's a correlation between a person's public and private life.

Dr. Rosemarie Tong, ethics center director would disagree.

"I don't really buy that. I really think it's difficult not to be the same person you are at home in the office and vice versa.. there's spillover inevitably."

Why it keeps happening no one knows.

What is known more Americans today (80%) say infidelity is "always wrong" than in 1970 (70%). And a full 99% of us say we expect our spouse to be faithful.