It’s a love story worthy of a treacly Nicholas Sparks novel. A high-ranking politician sneaks away from the pressures of political life to meet his secret lover — a beautiful, intelligent brunette from Argentina. He's willing to risk anything, even a potential shot at the presidency, to be with her. In the meantime, he plies her with hopelessly romantic love letters.
In today's Twitter- and text-obsessed world, passionate letters — even long e-mails — are rare. Washington hasn't had a good love letter since the release of some of the 1,300 letters between President Harry Truman's and his wife Bess during their nearly 60-year romance, and the more recent private-turned-public expressions of amour have been significantly less emotional. Consider the phone conversations between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, or Rep. Mark Foley's salacious instant messages sent to a young congressional page.
So the e-mailed letters between South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his lover, Maria Belen Shapur, are captivating — to hopeless romantics and serious politicos alike. They’re colorful, descriptive, and unabashedly romantic, at times to the point of being schmaltzy and embarrassing. As with all letters that should have been kept private, the lines that may sound sweet to the intended recipient turn into purple prose when splashed out in public. The swooning, over-the-top style makes Sanford an easy target for ridicule – even if his letters came straight from the (cheating) heart.
He writes: “Do you really comprehend how beautiful your smile is? Have you been told lately how warm your eyes are and how they softly glow with the special nature of your soul.”
Not only does her soul glow, so does his tractor, of which he writes the following: “To me, and I suspect no one else on earth, there is something wonderful about listening to country music playing in the cab, air conditioner running, the hum of a huge diesel engine in the background, the tranquility that comes with being in a virtual wilderness of trees and marsh, the day breaking and vibrant pink coming alive in the morning clouds — and getting to build something with each scoop of dirt.”
In between the mushy parts, the lovers tell each other about everyday events. She writes of taking a lazy day trip and reading an Alan Greenspan book. He writes about meetings in New York, the National Governor's Conference and an invitational with then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.
What emerges is that — regardless of the moral ambiguities of Sanford's character — the man was a real romantic with a knack for writing.
"The most cherished gift a lover can give and receive is a love letter from the heart," says romance coach Leslie Karsner, who sells prewritten love letters through a website called “Love Letters Now.” "It's very romantic, especially with forbidden love,” Karsner says. “If you take the politics out of it, it's the story of a man whose heart was captured and he was willing to run the risk of being caught."
What makes Sanford’s letters so effective? POLITICO asked relationship experts to examine the missives and comment on what works — and what doesn’t.
Love letters typically open with an adoring and tender greeting. This couple used "Dearest,” "My love" and "Sweetest." The sign-off should hint that there's more to come, as the governor did with "to be continued."
"He's good at keeping her on the edge," said Karsner. "He's good at encouraging future discussions. He's a busy governor, so the moments they have together are fleeting, and these letters become that much more valuable."
Also of importance is that the correspondents feel a lift when they are writing. Both Sanford and his mistress note how happy they are while composing their letters. He enjoys "another glorious day outside" and details the joy of an early-morning tractor ride on his farm. She writes him while sitting on a seaside island near Sao Paulo.
Psychologist and relationship coach Anne-Renée Test notes that Sanford and Shapur are about their emotions in the letters. Sanford even compares Shapur's affections to the unconditional love he felt from his mother. "They talk about the intensity of teenage love, which is extremely powerful, very real, and it can feel very intense like this," Test says. "That's the same intensity you read in these letters. They're beautiful. I'm jealous."
Sex is alluded to but not detailed in the letters, rating them about PG-13, an area that is still spicy without being lewd or pornographic, romance experts say.
He writes: "The erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night's light — but hey, that would be going into the sexual details."
She responds: "I never gave you sexual details but you don't need to. . .close your eyes and just remember. I'll do the same.”
What’s more important is the reminder of the writer's true feelings. Sanford writes: "Hope you know I am thinking of you” and "You have my heart."
While Sanford's writing missteps are few, the ones he does make are cringe-worthy enough to keep the public reader riveted.
At one point, he invokes the Bible, bringing the mood to a screeching halt. Sanford quotes I Corinthians 13 — a passage commonly used for weddings, while trying to justify the affair to himself.
"All my life I have lived by a code of honor..." he writes.
Best-selling romance author Eloisa James says these details in fact add more intrigue to correspondence that already is written like a cheap airport novel. "There's an enormous vicarious thrill to be had watching a man who particularly references family values being caught by emotion and descending to the depths." she said.
Another mistake he makes is in talking about her mental health. "You are glorious and I hope you really understand that. You do not need a therapist to help you figure out your place in the world," Sanford wrote as one opening line.
"'You do not need a therapist' should never be in a love letter," says former FHM editor and MTV Road Ruler Jake Bronstein, who recently finished a personal challenge of writing love letters to more than 1,000 random strangers.
The one aspect of their letters that may appear negative, but is in fact very important to communicate, is reality. Though it’s clearly painful, the governor and his mistress acknowledge that they may never see one another again. “Although I don't know if we'll ever be able to meet again, this has been the best [thing] that has happened to me in a long time," she writes, noting later that the situation is likely "hopelessly impossible" and that the love letters may pose a danger to his career.
“I genuinely enjoyed our special friendship…but it was all safe," he wrote. "Where we are is not."