Buddhism and horse-race politics

Campaign journalism is a favorite of reporters and readers alike. I am not a fan, finding the horse-race coverage to be frustrating. But with just one campaign of national interest right now, it's bearable. The Associated Press reports:

It's now up to voters render a verdict on former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's quest for political redemption, as one of the more unusual political campaigns in a state known for rough and tumble politics draws to a close.

Sanford, once mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender, saw his political career disintegrate four years ago when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit he had been in Argentina with his mistress – a woman to whom he is now engaged.

Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife Jenny divorced him.

Now Sanford is trying to stage a political comeback by winning the 1st District congressional seat he held for three terms in the 1990s when the conservative coastal district had a somewhat different configuration.

The race has had quite a few ghosts in it, what with Sanford's public moral failings. He faced a tough primary and his entire campaign was walloped with the recent news that he'd trespassed on his ex-wife's property, in violation of their custody arrangements.

And yet, somehow, he's actually still a contender. Today's election day, so we'll know more soon.

So, what does this have to do with GetReligion? Well, tons of campaign reporters are down in South Carolina covering the race and I rather enjoyed Yahoo News' update from the road (literally!):

Between stops around town, Sanford ditched his campaign driver and started hitching rides with reporters. He asked to ride in Yahoo News' rental car and we zoomed off toward the next event. On the way, I asked him about his unorthodox campaign tactics. After all, Sanford was meeting only a couple people at each stop. The entire exercise seemed grossly inefficient.

"My view is, bigger the crowd, the fewer the votes," Sanford said. "If you can just keep moving as an individual and you're present--I don't want to sound Buddhist on you--but you're in the moment. You're present with them, you actually can have a real conversation. You can talk about issues that they like, what they don't like, in a way that you can't if you have a crowd."

I asked him about Buddhism. (Let's face it, it's not every day that a southern candidate for national office will drop a Siddhartha Gautama reference in casual conversation.)

Sanford told me that his interest in Buddhism stretched back three years, when he retreated to his remote family farm after the scandalous end to his term as governor when he secretly left the country to have an affair with an Argentine woman who he now plans to marry.

While in exile, Sanford began studying meditation, a practice he continues to this day.

I just love that we get a Buddhist campaign strategy. Finally a fresh angle on these stories! Reporter Chris Moody asks some more questions about the Buddhist practices, some of which Sanford declines to answer, but he does get some meaningful discussion of Sanford's perspective. For instance:

"A buddy of mine said, Mark, you're becoming a Buddhist Christian. I come from the Christian faith. That's my faith tradition. But what I do like about Buddhism is the idea of being present," Sanford said during the car ride. "I think that that's missed in Western culture, where we're so busy looking a week out, two weeks out, a month out, a year out and we're hurried and we're busy. And I think if there's any one thing I learned from that year I spent on the farm in the wake of getting out of office and just having a very, very quiet year, is the importance of stillness and quietness. And that extends beyond just the physical location. It extends really into the moment of, Are you really with that person or are you thinking of the next thing you've got to do? So I do like very much that part of Buddhism. I think it's right."

Not all politicians will talk about their interpretation of Buddhism, but I bet there are a thousand easy and interesting stories about how religious influences shape a campaign. Kudos for bringing out one small story in this horse race.

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